It’s time to rethink and reset post-COVID: Bhutan Foreign Minister

It’s time to rethink and reset post-COVID: Bhutan Foreign Minister

Bhutan-China talks won’t focus on Doklam tri-junction, says Tandi Dorji

India’s interests on the Doklam tri-junction will not be harmed or “compromised” by the agreement between Bhutan and China for a three-step “roadmap” to resolve their outstanding border disputes, Bhutan’s Foreign Minister Tandi Dorji said in an interview to The Hindu. In the first interview since he signed the roadmap Memorandum of Understanding in October 2021, and ahead of Bhutan’s decision to reopen its borders for tourists in September 2022, Mr. Dorji said that in both cases, it is necessary to learn the “lessons” of the COVID-19 pandemic. He said that neighbours must find the way to “resolve issues” between them, and that Bhutan and China were hopeful of resolving their disputes soon, and would later take up the tricky issue of the Doklam tri-junction area that involves India’s interests as well.

Bhutan has announced that after two-and-a-half years, the country would finally reopen its borders to tourists on September 23. Dr. Dorji, who is a paediatric doctor by profession, said this was possible since all eligible Bhutanese had been administered COVID-19 vaccines and boosters, while children’s vaccination would soon be completed. Bhutan, which saw about 60,000 COVID-19 cases and 21 deaths during the pandemic, has had one of the strictest lockdowns in the world since March 2020, and had 21-day mandatory quarantines at the peak of the pandemic. Defending Bhutan’s latest decision, to triple its entry fee for other international tourists from $65 to $200 a day, as well as to implement for the first time, a daily Sustainable Development Fee (SDF) of ₹1,200 for Indian tourists, Mr. Dorji said the government’s “high-value, low-volume” policy is for tourists who are sensitive to the environment and willing to pay more to visit Bhutan. He denied the policy is “elitist”, but said that given the impact on economies in the neighbourhood post-Covid, it cannot be “business as usual”, and it is necessary to “revise and rethink” priorities.

Mr. Dorji said that the pandemic had also shown how “connected” the world is, and the necessity of resolving the outstanding border disputes in the interests of “all three countries” — Bhutan, India and China. The speed of talks last year took New Delhi by surprise, especially as they came after the 2017 Doklam stand-off between the Indian Army and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Mr. Dorji said he had not formally discussed with New Delhi the “Expert Group meeting” in Kunming in April 2021, that finalised the roadmap, but that the Indian government was “aware” of the progress.

Since 1984, talks between Bhutan and China have largely focused on two separate areas of dispute, including Doklam and other areas in Bhutan’s west, near the India-China-Bhutan trijunction measuring 269 sq. km., and the Jakarlung and Pasamlung valleys located near Tibet to Bhutan’s north, which measure 495 sq. km. More recently, China has also laid claims to Bhutan’s eastern Sakteng region.

‘Bhutan-China talks will not focus on Doklam tri-junction; will discuss with India later’

After two-and-a-half years of a lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic, Bhutan will open its doors for tourists on September 23 with a new, more expensive policy for international tourists that will see Indians being charged a daily fee for the first time as well. In an exclusive interview to The Hindu, Bhutan Foreign Minister Tandi Dorji said the lessons of COVID include better ties with neighbours, including China, and spoke for the first time about the Bhutan-China boundary breakthrough in 2021.

Bhutan has had the strictest lockdown amongst countries around the world, including closed borders, 21 day quarantines. Why did it take so long to lift the lockdown as you plan to do now?

Bhutan is a very small country, we have a little over 700,000 people. When the pandemic first began in March of 2020, we were guided by His Majesty the King, whose command was that we should prevent even one death from occurring. We kept everything aside, including the economy, and we focused entirely on the health response and saving lives. The country is now entirely vaccinated, and very soon, children below five years who are willing, will be vaccinated [too].

Now, as you open up Bhutan for tourism once again in September, you have new rules for how tourists have to pay. Indian tourists for the first time will also be paying a special fee. What drove the new policy?

The last two years of COVID has taught us to rethink and reset what are the key things that Bhutan needs to do. So we decided that instead of going for mass tourism, which was our focus prior to the COVID, that we must rethink and focus very much on our long standing policy of “high value, low volume” tourism. We decided that we will remove the minimum daily package rate and increase the Sustainable Development Fee from $65 to $200. When it comes to Indians, we implemented the Tourism Levy Act in 2020, which mentioned that for the first time, we will include ₹1,200 per day for tourists from India.

We’ve seen during the COVID process, a new opening with Bhutan-China border talks as well. Are you hopeful that Bhutan and China can resolve their boundary issues?

Yes, we are very hopeful. I’m very confident that we will definitely be able to resolve our border issues. It has been now nearly four decades that we’ve had discussions. We have now signed a three-step process and we are hopeful that that the government in China and the government in Bhutan will be able to find a suitable date for the next expert group meeting. After that, we will see how the border talks go.

Given the history, given the sensitivities, is this something that you in Thimphu and the government in Delhi have also discussed?

Not formally, but I think [the Indian government] is aware about the situation. After all, the main issue revolves around the trilateral junction in Doklam. So I think it’s important that the Indian government also, on their part, are aware about what the situation is there. As far as the bilateral talks between China and Bhutan goes, I think this is entirely a matter between our two countries. As long as it doesn’t touch the trilateral junction, that is. In many cases where there are three or more countries involved, they usually leave those decisions to a later date. So I think that there is a possibility for us to discuss all the other outstanding issues without discussing on the main trijunction area for now.

And that outcome wouldn’t impact India in the tri-junction area?

No, not at all. I think it’s important that when we make these decisions, that the interest of all the countries involved, including China, India and Bhutan, is kept, and the interests of the three countries are not compromised. After COVID, I think we now need to be much more sensitive about each other. We are all actually connected, and we need to be friends, especially among our neighbours.

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