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As China looms, India steps up Bhutan outreach

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Bhutan not keen on military roads till border with China is demarcated

NEW DELHI: Bhutan PM Tshering Tobgay will arrive tomorrow for a 5-day visit – his first abroad after taking over as PM earlier this year – amid efforts by both India and China to step up outreach to the new government in Thimphu.

The two sides have also begun preparations for a return visit to Thimphu by PM Narendra Modi in early April, just before the Lok Sabha elections, official sources said.

Modi is said to be keen to visit Bhutan for what will be his last trip abroad before the elections but the final decision is expected only in the next few days.

India’s Bhutan outreach comes also in the middle of efforts by China, which wants to resolve the border issue with Bhutan and open an embassy there, to reach out to the new government in Thimphu.

It’s learnt that a high-level delegation from the Chinese embassy here visited Bhutan recently as the 2 countries look to resolve their boundary dispute.

Tobgay, during his first stint as PM beginning 2013, had helped restore sanity in bilateral ties after the alleged anti-India policies of his then predecessor Jigme Thinley forced India to stall the supply of subsidised LPG to Bhutan. On this occasion though, he takes over at a time Bhutan seems close to concluding the negotiations with China for the final settlement of the border issue.

India remains concerned about how any such settlement will impact the status of the Doklam plateau, located close to the Bhutan-China-India trijunction. India wants China to acknowledge a 2012 understanding that trijunction points between India, China and third countries must be finalised in consultations with the concerned countries.

Aware of Indian sensitivities, Bhutan has claimed the boundary line from Doklam in the west to Serjungla in the east.

However, while India wants to construct a motorable road from Bletting in Tawang to Doksum in Bhutan, Thimphu believes any such move will derail the ongoing boundary talks and wants to wait till its border dispute with China is demarcated. The new Bhutan government is learnt to have conveyed to India that construction of any military road may result in China’s refusal to let go of any disputed territory along the northern border and will be detrimental to the interests of both India and Bhutan.

Tobgay will hold a bilateral meeting with Modi and also travel to Mumbai during his stay in India. A diplomatic source said he’s expected to participate in a tourism related event, as he looks to attract high-end tourists from India.

“India and Bhutan enjoy exemplary ties of friendship and cooperation, based on trust, goodwill and mutual understanding at all levels. The visit of the Prime Minister of Bhutan will provide an opportunity to the two sides to review the progress in our unique partnership and to discuss ways and means to expand the enduring ties of friendship and cooperation between India and Bhutan,’’ said the Indian government in a statement.

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