Transcript of Special Briefing by Foreign Secretary on the visit of King of Bhutan to India (April 04, 2023)

April 04, 2023

Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson: A very good afternoon to all of you. Thank you for joining us for this special media briefing on the occasion of the ongoing visit of His Majesty, the King of Bhutan, whose conversations just concluded with Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi. To give us a sense of the visit and the conversations today we have the pleasure of having with us Shri Vinay Kwatra, Foreign Secretary. We also have Sudhakar Dalela, Ambassador of India to Bhutan, as well as Anurag Srivastava, Joint Secretary, North. Sir, you have the floor.

Shri Vinay Kwatra, Foreign Secretary: Thank you very much Arindam and very good afternoon to friends from the media. We've come here today for this special briefing on the ongoing visit of His Majesty, the Fifth King of Bhutan. The King of Bhutan, His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, is on an official visit to India, which started yesterday afternoon, and will go on till tomorrow morning. His Majesty is accompanied by His Excellency Lyonpo (Dr.) Tandi Dorji, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and External Trade of Bhutan, and other senior officials of the Royal Government of Bhutan. This visit of His Majesty, which has been long in planning, takes forward our long standing tradition of regular high level exchanges between India and Bhutan.

Just to sketch the outline frame of the cooperation between our two countries, you are aware that India and Bhutan share an exemplary relationship, which is characterized by trust, goodwill, mutual understanding. It's a time tested nature of our friendship which was reflected in the support that we provided to Bhutan during the COVID pandemic, including the Vaccine Maitri program, as also in the expansion of our partnership into some of the new emerging areas and domains of economic cooperation, which includes digital domain, space; a new area, financial connectivity and increasing interoperability, etc. Hydropower, again, strong element of our cooperation, which most recently has included handing over of the 720 megawatt Mangdechhu Hydroelectric Power Project to the Royal Government of Bhutan. You would all recall, perhaps that His Majesty was, last in Delhi during his transit visit in September 2022, at that time, also, he had had a brief meeting with the Honorable Prime Minister. In terms of the program elements of His Majesty's ongoing visit as I mentioned, His Majesty arrived yesterday afternoon. External Affairs Minister called on His Majesty in the evening yesterday, and hosted a dinner in His Majesty's honor, which actually involved good discussions and interaction with the key CEOs of some of the Indian companies.

This morning His Majesty visited Raj Ghat to pay his tribute to Mahatma Gandhi. And thereafter, His Majesty had a meeting with Honorable Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi. The meeting was also followed by lunch hosted by the Honorable Prime Minister and later this evening, His Majesty will meet Rashtrapati Ji. The bilateral discussions between His Majesty and the Prime Minister, as would be expected, covered the entire gamut of India-Bhutan cooperation, and also issues of respective national and mutual interest. Let me briefly share with you its key elements as also the outcomes that we would be working on here on onwards following the discussions between His Majesty and the Prime Minister.

First up, His Majesty briefed the Honorable Prime Minister on his significant transformation and reform initiative that Bhutan is currently undertaking. Prime Minister, on his part, reiterated India's continued and full support to the socio-economic development in Bhutan based, of course on the priorities of the Royal Government and in keeping with the transformation initiatives and reform process as per the vision of His Majesty. More specifically, there were five broad range, discussion range issues. First was on economic and development partnership. This covered, in turn, many elements, which included cooperation for Bhutan's 13th Five Year Plan, whose processes is beginning from next year onwards. Support, including relevant financial support for the reform process in Bhutan. Support also for the institutional capacity building in Bhutan and project based development partnership which is one of the key pillars of our development cooperation with Bhutan.

Second bucket of issues was relating to trade, connectivity and investment cooperation, which in turn included discussions on infrastructure connectivity, whether pertaining to integrated check post, rail connectivity, air connectivity, digital connectivity, people-to-people linkages, and of course, the inland waterways of which we have spoken in the past also.

The third related element pertained to long term and sustainable trade facilitation measures that India and Bhutan could take, which would link to the economic growth and prosperity of both economies. Four, as I just hinted in the beginning, as part of new paradigms on energy cooperation, which would of course, strengthen the existing frame and specifics of hydropower cooperation, but also carry forward our cooperation in this domain into non-hydro-renewable space. And the last sub-segment in the economic chapeau relating to new sectors, which as I mentioned; space, startups, cooperation in the field of STEM education, as part of the bilateral partnership. In this context, the recent launch of India-Bhutan satellite, which was jointly developed by the space engineers from both countries was particularly appreciated.

In terms of specific outcomes, which as I said, we would be following up based on the discussions between His Majesty and the Honorable Prime Minister. One, it was agreed that India would step up its support to Bhutan's upcoming 13th Five Year Plan. The specifics of the support, its distribution into different projects that is something which is to be worked out between the two systems going forward. Two, at Bhutan's request, India would work to extend an additional standby credit facility. This would be over and above the two existing standby credit facilities that is operating between the two countries. Third, as I just mentioned, a brief while earlier, we would work to shape long term sustainable arrangements for export of agricultural commodities from Bhutan. Also work to develop long term bilateral arrangements for a short supply of critical commodities to Bhutan, which would include petroleum, fertilizers, and coal.

We are also examining and considering setting up the first Integrated Check Post (ICP) along India-Bhutan border, which would be somewhere near Jaigaon. The exact specific location of the ICP is yet to be determined, but the broad location point is known. Fifth, we will also try and expedite the proposed Kokrajhar-Gelephu rail link project through GOI, Government of India support in consultation of course with the Bhutanese side. This in some ways will be historic because this would be the first ever rail link between India and Bhutan. And naturally links up well to the rest of the regional connectivity infrastructure in South Asia.

In the field of hydro-power specifically, which has been the cornerstone of our economic relationship, we have agreed to an upward revision of tariff of the Chhukha hydro-electric project. This is the oldest hydro-electric project with Bhutan and is of great significance. Two, in the space of hydro-power itself, we will consider positively Bhutan’s request to sell power from its hydro-power project known as Basochhu hydro-electric project. This would be perhaps done, through the energy exchange mechanism of the market. The details are yet to be worked out, but the discussion is that it could be done through the market exchange mechanism.

Again, based on the CBT guidelines of the Government of India, we would extend favorable consideration to Bhutan's request regarding power trade and access to financing for new and upcoming hydropower projects. Again, the specifics of this would vary from project to project and would naturally be in sync with our CBT guidelines. And also, as I mentioned earlier, expand our energy partnership to include non-hydro-renewables particularly in the field of solar, and also maybe see how the bilateral cooperation between our two countries in the field of e-mobility could be expanded. Besides the existing range of hydropower projects and also exploring the non-hydro-renewable space, we would also try and expedite the finalization of modalities for new hydroelectric projects, hydropower projects, including the Sankosh hydroelectric project. As you can see from this listing and description, the ongoing visit of His Majesty has provided an excellent opportunities for both India and Bhutan to not only review the full range of bilateral engagement, advance it further in all these areas, which I mentioned here, but also at the same time sketch a roadmap in terms of the next steps that we would take to further on multifaceted cooperation and partnership.

I'll stop here and take few questions. Thank you.

Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson: Thank you very much.

Neeraj: Sir, Neeraj hu News 18 India se. Doklam masle pe koi charcha hui. Hal hi me Bhutan ke Pradhan Mantri ke bayan ki kafi charcha thi. Us sandarbh me koi batchit hui.

(Question asked in Hindi: Approximate translation) Sir, Neeraj from News 18 India. Was there any discussion on Doklam matter? Recently Bhutan Prime Minister’s statement was into discussion, was there any conversation in reference to that?

Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson: I would prefer to take all questions on this topic all together. Anybody on Doklam or anything related to that?

Sidhant: Sir, basically not on Doklam, basically about the Chinese worry, concerns. India has a worry with Chinese aggressive actions. Bhutan is also facing its issues and especially border issues. Were there any discussions regarding that? Did Bhutanese side brief on that to the Indian side over the issue when it comes to conversation with the Chinese?

Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson: On the same topic, yeah, please, go ahead.

Kavita Joshi: Sir, me Kavita Joshi hu. Sir, mera saval Doklam issue se hi related hai. Jaise kuch din pehle abhi Bhutan ke Pradhan Mantri ne ye kaha tha ke jo Doklam dispute hai, uska jo samadhan hai, usme China bhi barabar ka bhagidar hai. To Bharat hamesha matlab iska virodh karta raha hai. To kya Pradhan Mantri ne kisi tarah ka protest bhi rakha hai Bhutan ke King ke sath apni batchit me.

(Question asked in Hindi: Approximate translation) Sir, Kavita Joshi here. Sir, my question is related to Doklam issue. Sometime ago, Bhutanese Prime Minister said that in resolution of Doklam dispute, China is equally involved. Now India has always been against it. So did Prime Minister put forth his protest on this issue in front of King of Bhutan during his conversation?

Mukesh Kaushik: Sir, me Mukesh Kaushik hu Dainik Bhaskar se. Kuch Kunming me bhi batchit hui Bhutan aur China ki, uske bad aap bhi vaha par visit karne gaye the. Is bar phir se ham sun rahe hai, ke three-step roadmap Bhutan aur China taiyyar kar rahe hai. Kya who roadmap par kuch discussion hue aur wo three-step roadmap hai kya?

(Question asked in Hindi: Approximate translation) Sir, I am Mukesh Kaushik from Dainik Bhaskar. There were discussion between Bhutan and China during Kunming visit, and you also visited after that. Now we are also learning that Bhutan and China are preparing a three-step roadmap. Was that roadmap discussed, and also what is that three-step roadmap?

Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson: You aren’t asking Bhutanese this question.

Srinjoy: Sir, Times Now over here. Sir, there have always been many reports of PLA troops coming into Bhutan, so I don’t want to go into that. But sometime ago, I’ll just mention one case. This was Dasho Letho Tangbi, who was Secretary of International Boundaries. He was going to the border areas, and he inside Bhutan was stopped by the PLA and not allowed to a place called Orola. This was about two years ago. So have issues that relate to PLA entering in Bhutan, did these issues come up?

Maha Siddiqui: Sir, Maha Siddiqui from NDTV. Sir, related question, Chinese construction adjacent to Doklam in Amo Chu River Valley, did that come up for discussion considering that it could be a security concern both for India and for Bhutan as well?

Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson: You said in Amo Chu Valley?

Maha Siddiqui: Yes.

Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson: Okay. Any other questions related to this, because I don’t want to keep on coming back to this, if not, sir… we have a series of similar sounding questions sir.

Shri Mohan Kwatra, Foreign Secretary: Okay. Neeraj regarding your question, also Kavita you also put in context the same. Mukesh, your question led to a different direction, and also the other questions, which look at this entire question of Doklam, which was asked.

Dekhiye isko, Neeraj Ji aur Kavita Ji, yadi aap apne prashna ki roop rekha dekhe, is roop rekha ka prasang dekhe, uska paripksha dekhe, prasang aur paripeksha ki kendrta dekhe, toh naturally, svabhavik hai, vo Bharat ke jo rashtriya hit hai, Bhutan ke jo rashtriya hit hai, Bhutan-Bharat sambandho ke jo hit hai, vo uska Kendra bindu ubharke samne aata hai. Dekhiye jaise maine shuru me bhi kaha ke Bharat-Bhutan jo sambandh hai unke kuch mukhya aadhar hai.

(Answered asked in Hindi: Approximate translation) See Neeraj and Kavita, if you look at the framework of your question, look at context of the framework, look at the center of that context and perspective, then naturally, India’s national interests, Bhutan’s national interests, and the interest of India-Bhutan relationship comes up at the center of all that. Like I said at the beginning, there are some core fundamentals of India-Bhutan relationship.

These fundamentals are shared values, trust, as I said, mutual respect and a close understanding and sensitivity to each other’s interests and concerns.

I’m sorry. I’m going to migrate between English and Hindi, because part of the questions were in Hindi part of them were in English. Now besides this exemplary and unique relationship that India and Bhutan have, we also have a time-tested framework of security cooperation. And as part of that, both countries maintain a longstanding tradition of very close consultations on matters relating to their mutual interest and, of course, security also. Now in this context the intertwined and indivisible nature of our security concerns is self-evident.

With regard to the specificity which was inherent in some of the questions all I would say is that Government of India very closely follows all developments which have a bearing on our national interest and we would take all necessary measures to safeguard them as necessary. Now as regards the recent statements and the related commentary to them is concerned, I would say one, that India and Bhutan remain in close touch relating to our shared interest, including security interest, and I would only reiterate, you know, our earlier statements on this issue, which very explicitly and very clearly bring out our position on the determination of the tri-junction boundary points.

Kavita Ji, Neeraj Ji, yadi mai aapke prashna ko thoda aage badhake kahu, yadi aap dono desho ke sambandho ka mulbhut aadhar dekhe, mulbhut sanrachna dekhe, unki vividhtao ka agar aap puri tarah se avlokan kare to panch cheh chize payenge. Ek, pragarh mitrata, dusra, sakaratmak drishtikon, teesra sahyog aur sahkarya, jo ki dono samajo ki pragati ka aadhar hai, vikas yatra ka aadhar hai. Aur jaise ki maine kaha ek trust aur mutual respect and sensitivity.

(Answered asked in Hindi: Approximate translation) Kavita Ji and Neeraj Ji, if I take your question a step further, if you look at the basic fundamentals of the relationship of both countries, the basic structure, if you evaluate their diversity, then you will find five or six things. First, close friendship; second positive approach; third is cooperation and collaboration, which is the basis for both societies’ progress and growth journey. And like I said, there is trust and mutual respect and sensitivity.

So I think I'll just stop here in terms of covering all that.

Jo apne, Mukesh ji jo Kunming se related jo apka prasna tha. Dekhiye Bhutan, Chine ke bich me kya varta ki unki boundary ko le ke hai wo prasna China aur Bhutan ke prasamkash ap rakenge to shayad wo jyada uchit rahega mere hisab se.

(Answered asked in Hindi: Approximate translation) Mukesh ji, your question was regarding Bhutan and china talks in relation with their boundary issue, that is related to both of these countries so in my opinion it will be appropriate if you put this question in front of them.

I think we covered all that. Yeah.

Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson: Thank you. Other questions are now. I will start with you.

Sridhar: Sir actually I have a clarification.

Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson: If it's on this, you will not get very much more. okay.

Sridhar: Sir during the Doklam episode, sir Sridhar Asian News, during the Doklam episode China had indicated that it will deal with Bhutan as a sovereign nation and it will not accept any Indian veto on any proposal to resolve the territorial disputes. First of all, what is there seems to be some perception that Bhutan is open to a territorial swap whereby they cede the Doklam plateau to China in return for land elsewhere. What is India's response to this specific proposal and just needed a small clarification was this issue discussed, the questions were asked but I just wanted a very specific answer was this issue discussed in the talks between the Prime Minister and the Bhutanese King today.

Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson: Let me respond, before I even handed over that that proposal is your proposal. I haven't seen a proposal like that. Yeah, go ahead.

Suhasini Haidar: Sir Suhasini Haidar from The Hindu, I'd like to repeat Sridhar's question, if possible, we could get some information on what was brought up between Prime Minister Modi and His Majesty the King of Bhutan. Also wanted to ask specifically Prime Minister Lotay Tshering said in his interview last week, that one that on demarcating the northern boundary of Bhutan, they expect that they can probably demarcate that boundary within one to two meetings between Bhutan and China. So my question really is, how close do we think Bhutan and China are to this kind of resolution? And is the, you mentioned the tri-junction and India's protocol when it comes to the tri-junction is well known, but it's the surrounding area of the tri-junction and Bhutan and China's discussions on that a matter of concern that came up in today's meeting.

Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson: Sorry, could you repeat the last part, surrounding areas came up today or is it a matter of concern?

Suhasini Haidar: Did they come up? They are a matter of concern.

Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson: Your question you asked it, was it okay, did it come up?

Suhasini Haidar: Did it come up as a matter of concern?

Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson: Did it come up as a matter of concern? Shashank go ahead. Shashank yeah?

Shashank Mattoo: Thank you sir. Shashank Mattoo with the Mint. Sir the first question on education, the number of Bhutanese students in India was stood around 2500 a decade ago. It seems to have come down to around 1200, 1500. And given the importance of people-to-people ties, it seems that they seem to be going to education destinations like Australia instead. Could you give us a sense of why that has happened exactly because given the importance of people-to-people that you mentioned yourself if I could just quickly tack on something that that you mentioned CEOs investments in meetings between Indian and Bhutanese CEOs. Can we get a sense of which sectors and what they're looking to break into the Bhutanese market? Thank you so much.

Akhilesh Suman: Sir I am Akhilesh Suman from Sansad TV. This is regarding people-to-people connect between India and Bhutan. What we have heard that you know, Bhutan has put some specific fee for any Indian tourist who is going to visit there. So was there any talk around this issue and is there any outcome of it?

Manash Pratim Bhuyan: Sir Manash from PTI. Sir as you mentioned, the security cooperation between Bhutan and India has been very close. Was there any discussion on further expansion of the security cooperation in any specific areas?

Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson: Further expansion of security cooperation. Okay, I see no further hands. So we will close with that.

Shri Vinay Kwatra, Foreign Secretary: I think, Sridhar with regard to your question, and what Suhasini then, amplified further in terms of what was discussed, between His Majesty and the Honorable Prime Minister. I mentioned right upfront in my opening remarks that both His Majesty and the Prime Minister covered the entire gamut of bilateral cooperation issues and issues of respective national interests. So they looked at all the issues. With regard to the recent statements and I said this in response to the earlier set of questions on this matter, with regard to the recent statements, and also the media commentary, which came on it, all I would say is one, India and Bhutan remain in close touch, in close coordination relating to our shared national interests, including security interest, and two, reiterate our earlier statements which explicitly bring out our position on the determination of the tri-junction boundary points.

With regard to the question on Bhutanese students this was one of the, you know, in terms of linkages between our two countries, between our two societies, this was an important point in terms of what the two countries can do, what the two systems can do to further strengthen this part of our cooperation and ties. You know, there is no change in terms of access and availability of Indian education system to our partner countries in our neighborhood and to their people not just in terms of their presence here, but also in terms of the continuing national treatment that they get here. Which destination did they choose, of course, is always an evolving feature in terms of what happens, you know, within that society. But when His Majesty met with the CEOs of five or six key companies of India, the essential focus was that if we talk for example of further strengthening infrastructure cooperation, let's say, then how do we interface private sector participation in India, from India with that infrastructure partnership, one. Two, health partnership. If we try for example, to shape a holistic health cooperation project between India and Bhutan, in Bhutan, let's say, then how do I bring in the private sector involvement and engagement with that. Similarly, you know, with regard to the digital space, and the whole range of ancillary industries, for which Bhutan has the basic prerequisites in terms of the raw material, intermediates, or even in terms of the skilled manpower base. So how do you capture this entire package across different domains of economy, dovetail into what India and Bhutan do as two countries in terms of government-to-government basis, and amplify this togetherness into a project based cooperation, which is then beneficial for the economic growth and prosperity of Bhutan, and which also increases the employment availability in Bhutan. But yet at the same time, is complimentary when it comes to India-Bhutan, cooperation.

So discussions with the CEOs, the range of areas that these discussions covered, essentially had a both conceptual aspect to it in terms of how do we shape this entire ecosystem of our economic cooperation. But besides the conceptual aspect of it, it also had specificity of different areas, then how do you pick up the private sector involvement, not just in terms of capital frankly, but more also in terms of the capacity, in terms of the expertise, and then give it a cooperative framework in which those complementarities can be harnessed and also can be amplified for the benefit of both the societies. So that was with regard to the CEO investment cooperation. Akhilesh your question was...

Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson: The SDF fee -

Shri Vinay Kwatra, Foreign Secretary: Okay. Yeah. See. yeah. I think, as I as I mentioned, Akhilesh ji right, just now that people to people ties are really a crucial element of our bilateral partnership between India and Bhutan. As you're aware, under the new tourism policy of Bhutan, the Government of Bhutan had, at that time, introduced a fee of SDF U.S. dollars 200 per day for, on international tourist. The tourists from India however, were required to pay only a concessional fee of 1200 rupees per day, not $200 per day, which was announced for the rest of the international tourist. And naturally, this also, I think, was started off on an experimental basis. So we will see where this progresses. But as of now, on the ground, I think the flow of people between both sides is going on well and this is something which we constantly keep discussing with the Bhutanese government.

With regard to the question from PTI on the furthering of defense cooperation. Look, I mentioned already we have a time tested framework of security cooperation between India and Bhutan. There are several elements to it and we will continue to work on it to shape it further, consolidate it further. That's all I have to say on that.

Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson: Thank you very much sir. Thank you also to Shri Sudhakar Dalela and Shri Anurag Srivastava for being here today. Good day.

Shri Vinay Kwatra, Foreign Secretary: Thank you.


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