THIMPHU, Bhutan - India’s Narendra Modi received a grand welcome to Bhutan Sunday on his first foreign trip as prime minister, as he steps up a charm offensive with neighbours to try to check China’s regional influence.
The Hindu nationalist premier was greeted at the airport by his Bhutanese counterpart Tshering Tobgay and a ceremonial guard of honour at the start of a two-day visit to the tiny Buddhist kingdom, a month after his landslide election victory.
Ahead of his visit, Modi said relations with Bhutan would be “a key foreign policy priority’ of his government. “India and Bhutan enjoy a unique and special relationship... forged by ties of geography, history and culture,” he said in a statement late Saturday, adding that Bhutan was a “natural choice” for his first visit.
Schoolchildren in national dress lined the mountainous road between the airport and the capital Thimphu and waved the two countries’ flags to greet Modi. Bhutan’s Tobgay later wrote on Twitter that Modi was led in a traditional procession to an audience with King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck.
Tobgay earlier told The Hindu newspaper the visit was “proof to the world that two countries despite the differences in size can enjoy a relationship that is problem-free and mutually beneficial”. Relations with India remained “the cornerstone of Bhutan’s foreign policy”, he added.
Tobgay was one of seven regional leaders invited to Modi’s inauguration. Analysts say the decision to make Bhutan his first port of call is designed to underline the importance he places on neighbourly relations, which suffered under the last Indian government.
“Bhutan may be a small country but it is strategically very important and... China is on the other side,” said Ranjit Gupta, a retired ambassador. “If you aren’t interested in your neighbours, they’ll lose interest in you.”
With the exception of Pakistan, India enjoyed generally close ties with its South Asian neighbours in the first six decades after independence. But critics say the previous Congress party government began to take relationships for granted, allowing economic giant China - which shares a border with four of India’s neighbours - to step into the breach.
During his visit, Modi is due to address a joint session of parliament. Talks are expected to focus on strengthening ties over the kingdom’s hydropower plants, which supply much-needed clean energy to India.
Bilateral trade was worth $1.1 billion in 2012, and Tobgay said Bhutan’s hydropower industry was “the centrepiece of our bilateral cooperation”.
India, a power-deficit nation with severe outages, has helped Bhutan develop three hydropower plants with another three under construction.
In April the two countries signed a framework agreement on four more joint-venture power projects totalling 2,120 megawatts, and Modi will lay the foundation stone for a new project during the visit.
Amit Bhandari, from the Indian thinktank Gateway House, said electricity to India was Bhutan’s single largest export. “Modi’s visit to Bhutan demonstrates the importance India places on furthering this relationship,” he said.
There was friction with Bhutan when India cut fuel subsidies before elections last year, although they were restored after Tobgay’s victory.
The move was seen as a rebuke over Bhutan’s moves to engage more closely with China. But commentators say India is more likely to keep its neighbours on side by reaching out to them rather than punishing them. Modi will also inaugurate a new Supreme Court building partly funded by India while the king will host a banquet in his honour, according to Bhutan’s daily newspaper Kuensel.