In the last five years during the time of the incumbent DPT government’s time there is no denying that Bhutan has been very active on the foreign policy front increasing diplomatic relations from 22 countries in 2008 to around 53 countries now.
Bhutan based on its philosophy of GNH moved a happiness motion in the United Nations General Assembly and is currently the lead coordinator in developing a New Development Paradigm for the world.
Bhutan also made a historic bid for a seat at the UN Security Council seats. There is also no doubt that compared to 2008 more countries and people in the world know about Bhutan.
It also must be acknowledged that the former Prime Minister with his intellect, strong oratory and a suave and urbane style has represented Bhutan well in the international community.
However, there are also some key aspect of Bhutan’s foreign policy which could have been better conducted and whose impacts we are still reeling from.
Though a holy cow in Bhutan’s foreign relations the current state of Bhutan-India relations left behind by the incumbent DPT government must merit a discussion especially given the fact that India is Bhutan’s biggest donor and now also investor.
Indian media reports leaked strategically by Indian officials in Delhi show that the Bhutan-India relations had hit an all time low in the last few years of the DPT government.
It is no coincidence that though Bhutan’s 10th plan is ending in June 30th 2013 India is yet to even commit an in-principal amount for the ambitious 11th plan. This is compared to 2008 where India had already finalized its assistance to the 10th plan much before the 9th plan had ended.
Attempts by Bhutanese plan talk officials to broach the issue of Indian commitment in the 11th plan have met with polite postponements. Bhutan is aiming to get Nu 46 bn in grants from India for the 11th plan. This is, however, not to say that India will not support Bhutan in the 11th plan but the earlier 2008 enthusiasm is missing and there is a noticeable delay in responses.
Bhutan is also yet to get around Nu 3 bn of the remainder of the 10th plan from India which is a matter of concern given that plan period will end next month.
In a meeting with the private sector over the excise issue the government had assured the people that the excise duty for two years of 2010 and 2011 coming to around Nu 3 bn would be refunded by India at the end of April 2013. However, with the end of May approaching the excise duty is yet to be refunded and in fact it is learnt that some objections had been raised.
In the last few months there had also been a noticeable cash flow problem in the ongoing 10,000 MW hydro projects. Though this has been explained by the visiting Indian Foreign Secretary as part of India’s own financial constraints but his statement on hydropower financing is a matter of concern.
There is now talk of ‘creative ways’ to finance the 10,000 MW projects from India. If the incumbent DPT government had done a competent job of finalizing and locking down the 10,000 MW projects, including the financial modalities then the locks should not be coming lose like it is happening now. This is especially a matter of concern in light of the escalating costs of hydro power projects in Bhutan. If DGPC’s latest figures on Punatsangchu I (see story on Pg 1) is anything to go by then Bhutan’s 10,000 MW will need around Nu 1000 bn in financing.
In the past finance was never really a problem in the relations between the two countries but of late the financial challenges seem to be insurmountable
The incumbent government also failed to effectively tackle with the issue of rupee and credit crises in the bilateral context with India.
None other than His Majesty the King was left to put out the diplomatic fire in the Bhutan-India relations started by the incumbent government. Without His Majesty’s intervention the situation would have been worse. It may also not be a matter of coincidence that in the National day in 2012 and the closing session of the first Parliament, His Majesty the King stressed on the importance of Bhutan-India ties.
The elephant or rather the dragon in the room when talking about Bhutan-India ties is China. Ultimately both India and Bhutan have to accept the joint reality of our giant and increasingly powerful northern neighbor.
However, the incumbent government through its diplomatic and other ill timed and surprising moves has managed to give a misleading impression to India that Bhutan’s moves or position with regard to China are not in India’s best strategic interests.
While citizens may complain of lack of consultation on Pedestrian day the incumbent DPT government made the mistake of not consulting relevant authorities at home or partners abroad on moves with China.
Bhutanese national interest is supreme and cannot be sacrificed at the altar of any country including India or China, but at the current moment our predominant national interest is to get aid for the 11th plan, complete the 10,000 projects and not become a strategic battleground for two major competing powers like in our highly destabilized neighbor, Nepal.
The incumbent government should have taken a page out of the diplomacy practiced by our Monarchs who gave us the Indo-Bhutan friendship treaty of 2007. This treaty more through content and less through grand announcements has done more to strengthen our diplomatic position and sovereignty than any number of new diplomatic ties.
New Diplomatic ties
While Bhutan has achieved much in terms of quantity in new diplomatic relations there is much left to be desired in terms of quality.
Most of 22 countries that Bhutan under the wise guidance of our Monarchs had established diplomatic relations with up to 2008 are all big donors and supporters of Bhutan on the world stage. These include countries like India, Japan, European Union, Netherland, Denmark, Sweden, Austria, Norway, Australia etc.
These countries not only strengthened Bhutan’s international profile but have always been there to support Bhutan’s developmental programs.
Even in the 11th plan it will be the above countries that will be providing all the foreign aid that Bhutan will need for the next five years.
The 31 new countries that the incumbent government established relations with are mainly small players on the world stage and at the moment none of them are supporting or plan to support Bhutan’s developmental programs. Many of them are in fact in need of aid.
The immediate impact in the coming years will be the opening of more foreign embassies and consulates to which political appointees will be sent causing considerable strain on the treasury.
In pursuit of new friends Bhutan as an aid dependant country has also not paid enough attention to its old friends whom we still depend on for all our foreign aid. This is especially relevant in the context of the Bhutan having a 11th plan which is more than Nu 200 bn in size compared to Nu 148 bn in the 10th plan.
Bhutan has also failed to pursue a policy of friendship with major but non controversial powers like Germany, France etc who could have provided significant support to Bhutan. Germany like Japan has a strong assistance program and currently is bailing out the entire Euro Zone.
The other side of a good report card
One aspect of Bhutanese foreign policy from 2008-2013 has been to tell the world how happy we are and how well we are doing to the extent of even advising industrialized countries on their developmental priorities and paths.
This has been accompanied with our fetish of boasting of our high GDP growth rates, halved poverty rates, low unemployment figures, high per capita income, etc. However, our figures are either qualitatively not satisfactory like not capturing multi dimensional poverty, dubious like the unemployment rates or misleading like the hydropower lead artificial growth rates.
This is also in the backdrop of a global aid flow towards what are perceived to be needier and also mineral rich countries in Africa.
Bhutan’s policy of extolling our virtues in the last five years has given global donors the distinct and unavoidable impression that Bhutan is not as deserving of foreign aid. This would explain donors wanting to pull out of Bhutan quoting our own statistic back to us.
Such unwarranted boasting while making our politicians look good with domestic voters or dignitaries outside might just cost thousands of children their mid-day meal, if we are not careful.
Tenzing Lamsang /Thimphu