PM Modi expected to visit Bhutan this year as India steps up reach-out, even as China pushes for a boundary deal with Himalayan nation

New Delhi: National Security Adviser Ajit Doval undertook a quiet visit to Bhutan last week to carry out a comprehensive review on the strategy to be adopted on Doklam in the coming months.

The NSA, sources told ThePrint, also updated the Bhutanese leadership on the present security situation in Doklam, and reports of a Chinese build-up in the area. Both sides also discussed the next round of boundary talks between Bhutan and China, which are due this year.

Doval, who was accompanied by senior military officers and diplomats from the Ministry of External Affairs, also touched upon the possibility of a probable visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as part of the high-level exchanges to commemorate the 50th year of Indo-Bhutan diplomatic relations.

Pressure Building on Thimphu

While Bhutan has stood strong on its position that Chinese troops had transgressed into Bhutanese territory in Doklam, it’s reliably learnt that the pressure has increased on Thimphu in the past few months from Beijing to strike a settlement deal.

Ahead of Bhutan and China’s annual boundary talks, Thimphu would want to reach an understanding with New Delhi on the position it would take at these talks. These talks were not held in 2017. Traditionally, Bhutan has coordinated its approach with India on the China boundary talks.

In the context of the Doklam stand-off, China has reaffirmed its offer to concede to the Bhutanese claim in the northern and eastern parts of Bhutan. In return, however, China has suggested that Bhutan give up its claim to Doklam.

The problem is bigger for India, because possession of Doklam would allow China access close to India’s strategically important Siliguri Corridor that connects the rest of India to the Northeast.

During the NSA’s visit, India sought to impress upon the Bhutanese leadership that Indian supplies into Bhutan also move through the Siliguri Corridor, which makes it equally important for Thimphu. India, sources said, wants Bhutan to recognise that the corridor is of mutual strategic importance.

Efforts on to Complete Key Power Project

Meanwhile, India has stepped up its efforts to complete the 720 MW Mangdechhu power project in Bhutan within the next few months, so that it can be jointly inaugurated during the PM’s proposed visit. This would be among the biggest power projects in South Asia.

Since the cost of construction is not expected to stretch much beyond estimates, Bhutan’s actual earnings from exports is expected to kick in faster than usual.