Modi heads to Bhutan Sunday to cement ‘especially warm’ ties

New Delhi/Thimphu: India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi Sunday heads to Bhutan, the Land of the Thunder Dragon, on his first overseas visit, in a signal of the geostrategic importance of the friendly Himalayan nation that lies on its northeast border but also shares its boundary with China.

The prime minister, who had met and held talks with Bhutanese Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay when the latter was in New Delhi for the swearing in ceremony last month, would be accompanied by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh.

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The June 15-16 Bhutan visit is a pointer to the new government’s keenness to focus on the neighbourhood, as was evident from Modi’s invite to South Asian leaders for his swearing in ceremony on May 26.

Tobgay alongwith cabinet ministers and senior government officials will receive Prime Minister Modi and his delegation at the Paro international airport.

Modi will call on the Bhutan King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck at the Tashichhodzong, which has been the seat of the government since 1952 and presently houses the throne room and offices of the king.

In the evening, the Indian prime minister will inaugurate the new Supreme Court building in Hejo, which was constructed with funding from the Indian government.

Modi will also call on Prime Minister Tobgay, who will host a banquet for him at the royal banquet hall.

On Monday, the Indian prime minister will call on former king Jigme Singye Wangchuck, a close friend of India.

Modi will address a joint sitting of the third session of the second parliament of Bhutan.

Later, he will unveil the foundation stone of the 600 megawatt Kholongchu hydropower project, a joint venture model between Satluj Jal Vidyut Nigam and Druk Green Power Corporation. Construction on the project is expected to start later this year.

The Bhutan king will then host a lunch in honour of the Prime Minister Modi and his delegation, before they depart from Thimphu on June 16.

Reflecting on the importance of the visit, Prime Minister Tobgay has said earlier, “We’re honoured to have him choose Bhutan as the first country he’s visiting after assuming office. This is a historic visit, the entire world is watching, not just the SAARC region, and we’re extremely happy, we’re proud.”

India has described the relations between India and Bhutan as “unique and especially warm. Our historical and cultural linkages make us natural friends and partners. “

Both sides are expected to discuss a “whole gamut” of bilateral issues. India has committed Rs.4,500 crore (750 mn USD) towards Bhutan’s 11th five-year plan and is involved in infrastructure projects, agriculture, information communication technology projects among others in the landlocked kingdom.

India is also involved in building schools, libraries, drinking water projects and community centres in Bhutan, a crucial northern neighbour of just 750,000 peace-loving people, with which China shares a 500 km border through Tibet. Beijing is keen to establish closer ties with Thimphu and has been trying to set up an embassy in the Bhutanese capital.

Both sides would also examine ways to increase cooperation in the areas of education, media and tourism, besides trade, which stands at Rs.6,830 crore .

India is involved in a big way in hydropower projects in Bhutan, which it has described as a “win win” situation for both. It has three projects, of 1,416 MW, already in operation in Bhutan. It has three more under construction,- which would be commissioned in 2017-18. Earlier this years, both countries inked an agreement for four more joint venture model hydroelectric projects totalling 2,120 MW. The Kholongchu hydropower project is part of the latest batch.