Yearender/Foreign Affairs: Bhutan not only consolidated its diplomatic relations, especially with India, in the past year, but it also made a significant expansion as a member of the international community.
The close diplomatic relations and shared spiritual heritage between Bhutan and India were once again displayed the past year, with visits being exchanged at the very top levels of leadership.
His Majesty the King and Her Majesty the Gyaltsuen visited India in October. While in India, Their Majesties graced the 167th Founder’s Day celebration of Lawrence school in Himachal Pradesh. Lawrence school is Her Majesty the Gyaltsuen’s alma mater.
Their Majesties also visited sacred sites in Bodhgaya and Varanasi at the invitation of the Indian government.
Displaying India’s priorities in the region, the prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, chose Bhutan as his first foreign visit after being elected in May. While in the country for a two-day state visit in June, Prime Minister Modi received an audience with His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo, addressed a joint sitting of parliament, inaugurated the new supreme court building in Hejo, and unveiled the foundation stone for the 600 megawatt Kholongchu dam, among others.
Likewise, India’s support for Bhutan was once again displayed when the President of India, Pranab Mukherjee visited the country four months after Prime Minister Modi’s visit. In a break from protocol, His Majesty the King personally received the president at Paro airport.
While here, the president pointed out it was in India’s interest to see a strong, vibrant and prosperous Bhutan.
India also appointed a new ambassador to Bhutan. In August, Gautam Bambawale replaced VP Haran as the 16th ambassador to Bhutan.
Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay visited India twice in the past year, once for Prime Minister’s Modi’s swearing-in-ceremony in May, and for the Vibrant Gujarat Summit in January, this year. At the summit, lyonchhoen announced that Bhutan was open to clean and green businesses. Lyonchhoen also met with the Indian prime minister, and the UN secretary general, Ban Ki Moon.
Ban Ki Moon expressed appreciation for Bhutan’s participating in UN peacekeeping. Bhutan significantly expanded its international role by contributing to UN peacekeeping in September, when three armed forces personnel were deployed to serve under the UN flag. In November, six more police officers, including a woman, were contributed as part of a gradual expansion in participation.
Ban Ki Moon encouraged Bhutan to send more peacekeepers, especially woman officers.
At the request of the USA, lyonchhoen also met with US secretary of state John Kerry. This was the highest-level meeting between the two countries so far. The US secretary of state commended Bhutan for its transition to democracy, and for its sustainable development initiatives. He also said the USA would explore how it could expand its support for Bhutan in education.
In April, the government announced a suspension of all efforts to expand diplomatic relations, and instead concentrate on consolidating existing ones, on grounds that home affairs, such as the economy, needed addressing first.
Lyonchhoen paid a state visit to Japan at its government’s invitation in July. There, he met Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and received an audience with His Imperial Highness the Crown Prince Naruhito. The Japanese government agreed to provide 1,450 power tillers “in principle”, and to help in setting up charging stations for electric vehicles in Bhutan.
Lyonchhoen also agreed to discuss and consider a Japanese proposal to establish an embassy in Thimphu, but at a later date.
In November, lyonchhoen travelled to Nepal to attend the 18th SAARC summit, where he called for more economic integration. The following month, lyonchhoen was in Bangladesh to renew the bilateral trade agreement and, in a move to liberalise trade, the duty free trade list was expanded.
Bangladesh also gifted Bhutan with a plot of land for the construction of a permanent Bhutanese embassy there.
The 22nd round of border talks between Bhutan and China were held in China in July, and the joint technical field survey report on Bayul Pasamlung located in northern Bhutan was endorsed. An expert group met in Thimphu in October to discuss modalities on conducting a survey of disputed areas in the western region.
Gyalsten K Dorji