PM Modi holds talks with Bhutan King; focus on bilateral ties, issues of national interest

PM Modi holds talks with Bhutan King; focus on bilateral ties, issues of national interest

At their meeting, Bhutan’s King and Prime Minister Narendra Modi discussed “entire gamut” of ties, including China-Bhutan boundary talks, with a focus on development cooperation, says Foreign Secretary

India and Bhutan remain in “close coordination” over all security matters, said Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra, indicating that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bhutanese King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck discussed the latest situation along the India-Bhutan border as well as the progress in boundary talks between China and Bhutan, particularly above the Doklam trijunction point, during a meeting in Delhi on April 4.

Responding to a number of questions about the possibility of a boundary deal between China and Bhutan that could negatively impact India’s strategic interests in the region, Mr. Kwatra told journalists that the two leaders had discussed the “entire gamut” of bilateral cooperation and issues of national and regional interests, and that the two countries share an “exemplary” relationship of “trust, goodwill and mutual understanding”.

However, Mr. Kwatra declined to comment on any specific details of the conversation between Mr. Modi and the Bhutanese King relating to the latest developments between Thimphu and Beijing, or to a statement by Bhutan’s Prime Minister Lotay Tshering that a demarcation line could be drawn on disputed areas to Bhutan’s north with China within the next couple of rounds of border talks.

‘Shared national interests’

“India and Bhutan remain in close touch and close coordination relating to our shared national interests including security interests,” Mr. Kwatra said at a briefing after the meeting. He said that India had noted comments made by Mr. Tshering in an interview last week, adding that India has reiterated its position that any questions over the tri-junction between India, China and Bhutan would be resolved “trilaterally”.

The Bhutanese King met with Mr. Modi on Tuesday morning for talks, followed by lunch at the Prime Minister’s residence. “We had a warm and productive meeting. Deeply value our close friendship and the vision of successive Druk Gyalpos (Bhutanese Kings) in guiding India-Bhutan relations to new heights,” the PM tweeted after the meeting.

Reform, development focus

Mr. Kwatra said that while strategic issues were discussed, the focus of the talks was on bilateral ties and, in particular, the Bhutanese King’s “Transformation Initiatives and Reforms Process”, as well as India’s support for Bhutan’s development plans, including the 13th Five Year Plan that starts from next year.

Bhutan is set to graduate from the list of Least Developed Countries in 2023, and its 21st century Economic Roadmap aims to turn the Himalayan kingdom into a developed country with a per-capita income of $12,000 in the next 10 years. India has also agreed to extend Bhutan a third additional standby credit facility.

According to the Foreign Secretary, the leaders discussed India’s financial support for reforms and institutional capacity building, infrastructure and connectivity projects, energy cooperation including hydropower and solar energy projects, as well as space cooperation including the recent launch of the India-Bhutan satellite.

First rail link

On hydropower, the government has agreed to a long pending demand from Thimphu to increase the power tariffs for the Chhukha hydro-electric project, which began operations with India’s help in 1986.

India has also agreed to discuss buying power from the Basochhu hydel project that was built with Austrian support in 2008. Mr. Kwatra added that the two sides would try to expedite the long pending negotiations on the reservoir-based 2,500 MW Sankosh hydel project, that has been stuck for decades over environmental and cost concerns.

India is also examining the possibility of setting up the first Integrated Check Post along the India-Bhutan border at Jaigaon and expediting the proposed Kokrajhar-Gelephu rail link project. Bhutan is working on constructing its second international airport at Gelephu, near the border with India, and the rail link project would help build the southern Bhutanese city into a hub for attracting international investment.

“This in some ways will be historic because this would be the first ever rail link between India and Bhutan. And naturally links up well to the rest of the regional connectivity infrastructure in South Asia,” Mr. Kwatra said.

Skilling investments

Responding to a question about the dwindling number of Bhutanese students opting to study in India, Mr. Kwatra said that Bhutanese citizens continue to receive “national treatment” in India, on par with Indian citizens, but that both countries were looking for new ways to build on the partnership.

At a dinner hosted for him by External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar on Monday, the Bhutanese King had also met with a number of CEOs of Indian companies keen to invest in Bhutan in terms of skilling and training, in the areas of education and digital technology.

On Tuesday evening, the Bhutanese King also met with President Droupadi Murmu. “The President noted that India and Bhutan have been also collaborating on the fin-tech, start-up and emerging technology fronts… and should expand the ambit of this collaboration to properly utilize the energy and potential of our youth,” a statement issued by Rashtrapati Bhavan said.

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