Indian PM Narendra Modi in Bhutan to check China's influence

Newly elected Indian PM hopes to firm up ties over kingdom's hydroelectric power plants

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 June, 2014, 3:15am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 June, 2014, 3:29am


India's Narendra Modi arrived in Bhutan yesterday on his first foreign trip since becoming prime minister, stepping up a charm offensive with neighbours to try to check China's influence in the region.

The Hindu nationalist premier was met at the airport by his Bhutanese counterpart Tshering Tobgay at the start of a two-day visit to the tiny Buddhist kingdom, a month after his landslide election victory.

Modi said relations with Bhutan "will be a key foreign policy priority of my government".

Bhutan's Tobgay was one of seven regional leaders invited to Modi's inauguration. Analysts say the decision to make Bhutan his first port of call is designed to underline the importance he places on neighbourly relations, which suffered under the last government.

If you aren't interested in your neighbours, they'll lose interest in you
Ranjit Gupta, retired ambassador

"Bhutan may be a small country but it is strategically very important and … China is on the other side," said Ranjit Gupta, a retired ambassador whose postings included Nepal and India's UN mission.

"If you aren't interested in your neighbours, they'll lose interest in you."

With the exception of Pakistan, India enjoyed generally close ties with its South Asian neighbours for its first 60 years of independence. But critics say the previous Congress party government began to take relationships for granted, allowing economic giant China - which shares a border with four of India's neighbours - to step into the breach.

During his visit, Modi will meet King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and address a joint session of parliament.

Talks are expected to focus on strengthening ties over the kingdom's hydropower plants, which supply much-needed clean energy to India. Bilateral trade between the two nations was worth US$1.1 billion in 2012.

India, a power-deficit nation with severe outages, has helped Bhutan develop three hydropower plants with another three under construction.

In April the two countries signed a framework agreement on four more joint-venture power projects totalling 2,120 megawatts, and Modi will lay the foundation stone for a new project during the visit.

Amit Bhandari, from the Indian think tank Gateway House, said electricity to India was Bhutan's single largest export.

"Modi's visit to Bhutan demonstrates the importance India places on furthering this relationship," he said.

There was friction with Bhutan when India cut fuel subsidies before elections last year, although they were restored after Tobgay's victory.