NE terror, China: What's on PM Modi's Bhutan trip agenda?

Two types of bilateral issues will dominate the talking points when Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his high-level delegation including External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval engage with their Bhutanese interlocutors during Modi’s Bhuan visit (15-16 June), his maiden foreign trip as Prime Minister.

These will be overt and covert. Nothing novel about it because whenever Indian Prime Minister visits abroad his agenda invariably includes covert issues of bilateral interest. Also, the NSA is invariably part of the PM’s official delegation during his foreign visits. On most of Manmohan Singh’s foreign visits during his decade-long prime ministerial tenure the NSA was an integral part of his official delegation.

But the Bhutan visit will be a bit different. The presence of Ajit Doval in Modi’s official delegation is not merely because of the unwritten convention mentioned above. There are really some pressing and worrying issues between India and Bhutan which directly come into the NSA’s domain.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Bhutan PM Tshering Tobgay. AFP.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Bhutan PM Tshering Tobgay. AFP.

There have been intelligence reports about anti-Indian insurgent outfits, active in the northeast, regrouping and using Bhutanese territory once again after they were ousted from the tiny Himalayan country in a military operation by Bhutanese government in 2003, codenamed Operation All Clear.

Till date Bhutan has been the only neighbour to have launched such a military operation on its soil against Indian insurgents. In fact, Modi’s gesture of choosing Bhutan as the destination of his first foreign visit is a belated recognition of the favour that Bhutan did to India over a decade back.

The latest situation in this context is that the Songbijit faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) and Kamatapur Liberation Organisation (KLO) are maintaining some camps in remote areas of Bhutan.

Though the number and size of these camps is much smaller as compared to the pre-2003 situation (when Bhutanese security forces had launched Operation All Clear), the above-mentioned outfits have established sanctuaries in Sarpang district of Bhutan which border’s Assam’s Kokrajhar district.

These outfits have been using their Bhutan camps for lodging kidnapped officials of Assam tea gardens. Senior officials of the Indian home ministry had raised this issue with their Bhutanese counterparts in their talks last year.

Doval will be surely discussing this issue with Bhutanese intelligence and security officials. This is the covert part of Modi’s Bhutan mission. There will be no specific read-outs or statements on this issue. It remains to be seen whether India presses Bhutan to launch another military operation on the anti-India terror elements. But the Indian side would be taking up this vital security issue with the Bhutanese.

Another covert issue will be the China factor. There are two aspects to this in the India-Bhutan conversation: (i) China’s intense desire to establish full-fledged diplomatic ties with Bhutan and set up its embassy in Thimphu; and (ii) the increasing interest and activities of People’s Liberation Army of China in Bhutan.

On the former, India has been anxiously watching the situation as Bhutan is a sovereign country and pushing the envelope may prove to be counter-productive. The latter scenario is far messier.

On the latter, the PLA has routinely been subjecting Bhutan to Depsang Valley-type incursions in view of the unsettled 470-km-long border. Perhaps this is China’s style of pushing the envelope with Bhutan. China has extended a package deal carrot to Bhutan wherein it settles its border dispute with Bhutan in one go in lieu of full-fledged diplomatic relations. Beijing is not happy with the fact that Bhutan currently has diplomatic relations with 52 countries, including China’s bug-bear Japan, but China does not figure in this list.

As Bhutan is a contiguous neighbour and a model neighbour with which India shares slightly less than 700-km-long border, India keeps a close tab on whatever is happening between Bhutan and China.

On the overt side of the India-Bhutan relationship, the two sides have been pro-actively engaged in areas as diverse as infrastructure, information and communication technology, health, agriculture, human resource development and tourism.

However, cooperation in the hydropower sector is a deep focus area for the two sides. Electricity constitutes bulk of Bhutan’s export to India. Cooperation in hydropower sector would peak by 2017-18 when Bhutan would be generating 10,000 megawatt power through Indian assistance, much of which would be exported to India.

This means that by 2017-18 the Indo-Bhutan bilateral trade would zoom up. Currently the bilateral trade is pegged at a little over $1.1 billion, not an unimpressive figure considering that the Bhutanese GDP is only $2 billion.

India has allocated an assistance package of Rs 4500 crore to Bhutan for its 11th Five Year Plan (2013-2018) which means the annual Indian financial assistance to Bhutan is Rs 900 crore.  This denotes the high degree of importance of Bhutan for India.

The writer is a Firstpost columnist and a strategic analyst who tweets @Kishkindha


Updated Date: Jun 15, 2014 09:56 AM