Australia’s Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs Tim Watts, MP talks with Kuensel’s Choki Wangmo during his visit to Bhutan. Bhutan-Australia celebrates 20 years of bilateral relations this year. 

What is your first impression of Bhutan? What is the purpose of your visit?

My impression of Bhutan was the quite extraordinary flight landing in Paro. Australia has a lot of natural beauty but we don’t have that many mountains. So, seeing the mountain landscape was incredibly spectacular. Bhutan is known in Australia and in around the world as a country that has taken an incredible effort to preserve its natural heritage and its cultural heritage and that is obvious immediately upon arrival. It is quite striking. 

This year is the 20th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Australia and Bhutan. So, my visit is to mark that anniversary, but of course, relations between Australia and Bhutan at the people-to people-level are much older. Indeed, from the 1960s, Bhutan was one of the first participants in the Colombo plan, which offers scholarships to students to come and study in Australia and return to their home countries to use their skills and expertise and contribute to the development of their country. Since then, there has been a significant growth in the number of Bhutanese studying in Australia and we love young people studying in Australia from all around the world. It has helped shape young minds, to form lifelong friendships, to give skills and expertise that can be used in return to help the development of the country’s economy and society of the home countries. 

I should also say we’re also very happy when students work for good rates in Australia and send remits to their homes for their families to help support them. So, there is a strong people-to-people relationship between our countries that we can build on at the government level. 

What collaboration plans are in the pipeline between the two countries?

One of the things that I’m interested in exploring is the potential to deepen education ties between Australia and Bhutan and the vocational education and training space. In Australia, vocational education training is a prestigious thing to study. It’s something that parents are very happy for their children to study because it gives them a good career moving forward. So, we are hoping to be able to expand it and the partnerships for improving the vocational education training system in Bhutan. 

You are an expert in the technology sector. Bhutan is gearing towards digital transformation. Can you see areas of bilateral collaboration in this sector?

A number of Bhutanese have already come to Australia to study ICT and computer science technology. About 46 Bhutanese have come to study at master’s level and just next month, Bhutanese officials will be coming to Australia as part of our flagship boot camp training course run by the Australian National University’s National Security College. This is a training programme that we ran for individuals across the region to help them build cybersecurity capabilities and expertise in critical and emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and quantum technologies. 

Australia continues to be the top destination for Bhutanese for higher education, with thousands of Bhutanese studying, working, and living across Australia. Should Bhutanese expect major immigration policy changes from Australia in the future? 

Australia really values its position as the education destination of choice for young people in Bhutan. We are currently undertaking a review of our immigration system and the Minister for Home Affairs Clare O’Neil said that we want an immigration system that brings the people we need. For Australia, it is a priority, that treats people applying to come to Australia with dignity and fairness and then operate quickly for both people lodging Visa requests and for businesses and institutions that they’re coming to work with. The results of that inquiry will be released publicly by the end of this year. But I really can assure everyone in Bhutan that Australia values its role as the education destination of choice for young Bhutanese people and will be very happy to accept students in the future.  

There is already cooperation in Technical and Vocational Education and Training between the countries. What are some of the current achievements of this cooperation? Are there any future plans for collaboration in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education? 

The Australian government has already supported 63 individuals to develop their vocational education training skills in Bhutan.  These vocational programmes haven’t been focused on the STEM area, but if this is a priority for the Bhutanese government, we’re very happy to examine it.  My observation in Australia is that many of the ICT skills in the cybersecurity schools in most demands by businesses around the world are skills that are met by vocational education and training courses. So, I know in my part of the world there are many young trainees studying cybersecurity at vocational institutions and going into very good jobs.  

How would the bilateral relations change as Bhutan graduates from the Least Developed Countries (LDC) group this year? 

Australia congratulates Bhutan on the extraordinary progress it has made towards graduating from the LDC status, particularly in the face of the global economic challenges that we’re seeing recently, the Covid-19 pandemic and the economic disruption caused by Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. Australia’s overseas development assistance programme won’t be affected by this and will remain with Bhutan through this transition, particularly support for educational institutes in Bhutan will remain. 

Any further comments?

I am excited to be here in Bhutan. It is a place that is well known to all Australians. When I said to my daughter that I was coming to Bhutan, she said, “Ah! the place of happiness!” Bhutan has a special place in the heart of the Australians. I know that many of my colleagues in Australia were very jealous that I was able to make this trip today but my only regret is that it is only for a day. But a short visit makes for a good reason to return. So, I hope to return for a longer period in the future.