Warm and cordial relations between New Delhi and Thimphu received a significant boost during the Bhutan King's recently concluded visit to India
Bhutan King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, embarked on an eight-day official visit to India from November 3 to 10, 2023. During the visit, discussions between King Wangchuck and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi encompassed a wide range of topics, including bilateral cooperation, as well as regional and global issues of mutual interest. The King of Bhutan also had a meeting with India's External Affairs Minister, Dr. S. Jaishankar.

Notably, this marked the King's second visit to India in the current year. Previously, at the invitation of President of India, Droupadi Murmu, the King of Bhutan undertook an official visit to India on April 3-5, 2023.

Significance of visit

In the course of this visit, the King first undertook a trip to Assam to engage in discussions regarding improving multimodal connectivity between the two nations. In the second leg of his eight-day visit, he arrived in New Delhi to hold bilateral talks. Furthermore, he made a trip to Mumbai where he met Indian business leaders and invited them for increased investments in Bhutan. This effort is particularly pivotal given Bhutan's current economic challenges, exacerbated by the impact of COVID-19 restrictions and the Ukraine crisis.

In response to these economic pressures, Bhutan has implemented several amendments to its 2019 foreign direct investment (FDI) policy. The purpose is to attract investments not only from India but also from countries beyond. This has evolved into a significant electoral concern as Bhutan approaches the 4th National Assembly elections by the end of November 2023.

The visit gained additional significance as it transpired merely ten days after the 25th round of boundary talks between Bhutan and China in Beijing on October 23, 2023. During this round, both nations affirmed their commitment to advancing the implementation of the Three-Step Roadmap. This roadmap involves:

1.     Agreement on border demarcation during formal talks
2.     On-site visits by both sides to locations along the demarcated line
3.     The final demarcation of the boundary between the two nations

Earlier, Bhutan's Prime Minister, Dr. Lotay Tshering, shared insights on the progress during an interview with The Hindu on October 7, 2023, stating, “Over the last three years, many rounds of talks have taken place, and there has been progress… we [Bhutan-China] are inching towards the completion of the three-step roadmap.” This roadmap was mutually agreed upon by the negotiating parties in October 2021. In a similar vein, PM Tshering conveyed optimism in March 2023 expressing Bhutan's hope to conclude the demarcation of territories with China in “one or two meetings.”

While these discussions involve two sovereign nations addressing boundary disputes at three distinct locations—the northern borders of Bhutan, the Sakteng forest area, and the Doklam area—the pressure exerted by China on Bhutan to swap territories in the northern part for exclusive control over the Doklam area remains a significant concern for India. The Doklam area is particularly critical as it constitutes a tri-junction point between India, Bhutan, and China.

Resolving the Doklam issue bilaterally poses a challenge due to a 2012 agreement between India and China, stipulating that "tri-junction boundary points between India, China, and third countries will be finalised in consultation with the concerned countries." Any attempt, therefore, to unilaterally or bilaterally determine tri-junction points without involving India violates this understanding.

On June 16, 2017, when a People's Liberation Army (PLA) construction party entered the Doklam area with intentions to build a road, Indian personnel, present in the general vicinity, approached the Chinese construction party. They urged them to refrain from altering the status quo. Apart from adhering to the 2012 agreement with China, India's resistance in Doklam aligns with the longstanding tradition of close consultation between India and Bhutan on matters of mutual interest.

Visit outcomes

During the high-level discussions, both nations explored novel avenues for collaboration, particularly in the domains of Startups, Space, and STEM education. Notably, the joint development and launch of the inaugural satellite by India and Bhutan, along with the inauguration of the satellite's ground earth station in Thimphu in 2023, were highlighted as significant milestones.
Additionally, to bolster bilateral ties, both countries formalized their commitment through the signing of nine agreements. These encompassed areas such as trade, technology, cross-border connectivity, mutual investments, education, and people-to-people connections.
In a demonstration of strong support, India affirmed its positive response to Bhutan's request for increased assistance in realising Bhutan's 13th Five-Year Plan. Furthermore, India granted Bhutan access to its energy exchange market, including the Real-Time Market.

All weather friendship

Since the establishment of diplomatic ties between Bhutan and India in 1968, their relationship has evolved into a standout success story in South Asia, characterised by mutual trust, understanding, and maturity. At the foundation of this relationship stands the Treaty of India-Bhutan Friendship and Cooperation, initially signed in 1949 and subsequently updated and revised in February 2007. This treaty has served as the bedrock, enabling unique arrangements such as open borders, robust security cooperation, and the deepening of people-to-people connections.

Numerous bilateral institutional arrangements have been established in key areas, including water resources, trade and transit, economic cooperation, education, security, and border management. India constitutes over 80% of Bhutan's total imports and is a principal investor. With the development of four hydroelectric projects generating 2136MW of electricity, three-fourths of which is exported to India. Looking ahead, India has committed to assisting Bhutan in generating 10,000 MW of electricity in the future.


The regular occurrence of high-level visits serves as a tangible demonstration of the substantial mutual trust and understanding shared between the two nations. Bhutan occupies a unique and esteemed position within India's ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy, and this special relationship has been underscored by India's consistent role as the primary responder during crises in Bhutan. In contrast to other neighbouring countries of India, Bhutan has consistently demonstrated sensitivity to India's security concerns in the eastern Himalayas.

The ongoing commitment of both nations to uphold the tradition of mutual consultation, particularly on matters pertaining to economic and security issues, stands as a key driver for the further fortification of their bilateral relationship. This collaborative approach underscores the resilience and depth of the ties between the two countries.

 **The writer is a Research Fellow at the MP-IDSA, New Delhi; views expressed are his personal