Is India worried about China's influence in South Asia? Modi's first foreign trip suggests so

India's new PM made a surpise visit to Bhutan this week

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According to India’s newly elected Prime Minister, it was a “natural choice”. But at least a few observers were surprised Narendra Modi’s first official foreign visit would be to the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.

"The relationship between India and Bhutan is historic. The new government is committed to making this even stronger,” Mr Modi told the Bhutanese parliament in Thimpu on Monday. “If you walk a few steps, we too feel like walking those steps and supporting you.”

From all reports Mr Modi’s visit went down a storm. His hosts overlooked a slip in his speech when he initially referred to Bhutan as Nepal, and schoolchildren lined up to see him. Parliamentarians even overlooked a cultural disinclination to clap and gave him a round of applause. (Clapping is traditionally done to ward off evil, rather than to display appreciation.)

“I think Modi’s visit represents just how close the relationship is,” said Neelam Deo, a former Indian diplomat who is currently director of the Indian Council on Global Relations.

Mr Modi signed off on deals over hydroelectricity generation and food exports, and he inaugurated the new premises of Bhutan’s Supreme Court, built with Indian help. He met with the royal family, said to be close to the Congress party, now sitting in India’s opposition benches.

The visit also presented an opportunity to further cement links to a strategically located country some believe could be open to influence of neighbouring China.

India has long had close links to Bhutan, which only had its first road build in 1962, obtained the television in 1999 and made the transition from absolute monarchy in 2008.

The relationship has got stronger since China invaded Tibet in 1959. An Indian military training camp has been established there since the early 1960s and the country provides around $780m in aid. Yet there have been fears among some in Delhi that Bhutan remains open to slipping under the influence of China.

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As The Hindu newspaper reported this week, while Bhutan and China have no formal diplomatic relations, in 2012 Bhutan's Prime Minister at the time met the then Chinese Premier on the sidelines of a UN summit in Brazil. The Bhutanese leader told his Chinese counterpart that he wished to forge official ties. India sat up and took note.

When I visited Bhutan a couple of years ago, there appeared to be substantial evidence of Indian influence and almost no evidence of China’s hand. A Thimpu-based observer confirmed to me that this had not changed.

“I think India’s concern is highly over-stated. There is no Chinese influence in Bhutan as such,” said the person, who asked not to be named. “I think the threat of China as a major player is irrational on the part of India.”

 

Although it is not just in Bhutan that India feels Chinese influence in South Asia.

When it looks eastwards to Burma it sees China’s strong presence, when it gazes south towards Sri Lanka it sees a growing relationship that has led to China building ports and to the west it is all too aware of China close ties with Pakistan. Indeed, China has been increasing its interaction with countries across the region, including India.

Bhutan is all too aware of this and is disinclined to do anything what would sorely upset India.

As if to underscore this, a day after Mr Modi’s visit concluded, Bhutan’s Prime Minister, Tshering Tobgay, told India’s NDTV news channel there was no plan for a Chinese mission any time soon. “We don’t even have any diplomatic relations. How can there be an embassy without diplomatic relations?”

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