NEW DELHI: India’s Narendra Modi heads to Bhutan on Sunday on his first foreign trip since becoming prime minister, stepping up a charm offensive with neighbors in a bid to check China’s influence in the region.
The Hindu nationalist premier is expected to meet with his Bhutan counterpart Tshering Tobgay during the two-day visit to the tiny Buddhist kingdom, a month after his landslide election victory.
Modi said relations with Bhutan “will be a key foreign policy priority of my government.”
“India and Bhutan enjoy a unique and special relationship . . . forged by ties of geography, history and culture,” he said in a statement late on Saturday.
“Therefore, Bhutan as the destination for my first visit abroad as prime minister is a natural choice,” he added.
Bhutan’s Tobgay was one of seven regional leaders invited to Modi’s inauguration, and analysts say the decision to make Bhutan his first port of call is designed to underline the importance he attaches to neighborly relations, which suffered under the last 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 whose postings included Nepal and India’s United Nations mission.
“If you aren’t interested in your neighbors, they’ll lose interest in you,” he added.
With the exception of Pakistan, India enjoyed generally close ties with its South Asian neighbors in the first six decades after independence.
But critics say the previous Congress party government started to take things for granted, allowing economic giant China —which shares a border with four of India’s neighbors—to step into the breach.
During the visit, Modi will meet with King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, along with Tobgay, and address a joint session of the country’s 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 $1.1 billion in 2012.
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 totaling 2,120 megawatts, India’s foreign secretary Sujatha Singh told reporters on Friday.
“Our hydropower cooperation with Bhutan is a classic example of win-win cooperation and a model for the entire region,” said Modi, who will lay the foundation stone for a new power project during the visit.
Amit Bhandari, from Delhi-based 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 ahead of 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 with China, but commentators say India is more likely to keep its neighbors on side by reaching out to them rather than punishing them.
During the visit, Modi will also inaugurate a new Supreme Court building, partly funded by India, while the king will host a banquet in his honor, a report in Bhutan’s Kuensel daily said on Saturday.