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on subjects that matter in 21st Century Bhutan.
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Launched on 21st February 2021 to commemorate the 41st Birthday of His Majesty The King

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POSTED ON February 21, 2021
Tenzin Tenzin
Asst. Desk Officer, Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Author's Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not, in any way, represent the views of the organization with which the author is associated with.

A brief introduction

Bhutan's foreign policy evolved gradually after Zhabdrung Rinpoche unified the country as a nation-state in the 17th Century. Before the unification process, Bhutan was heavily engaged in fighting back several invasions from the Tibetans and a few from the Mongols. Back then,  Bhutan's engagement with the outside world in terms of people-to-people relations, trade, commerce, political discourse, international relations, etc., was never a national priority.  This article assesses the crucial milestones in Bhutan's external engagements. It presents the context in which our visionary Monarchs administered Bhutan's foreign policy and its contribution towards maintaining a sovereign independent state.

How and when did it evolve?

Fast forward to the late 18th Century, having fought several battles with the British forces, Bhutan had to cede its territories (duars) in the south. The Bhutanese lacked military strength and capacity and were no match for the well-equipped British troops. Following the Duar War, Bhutan signed its first treaty, the Treaty of Sinchula, with the British government in 1865. In return for territories that Bhutan ceded, the British agreed to pay an annual subsidy of Nu. 50,000. The treaty promised a peaceful coexistence between the two countries and assured Bhutan's sovereign status as a signatory to the treaty.

Later in the early 20th Century, and a few years before Gongsar Ugyen Wangchuck was enthroned as the first King, he engaged in the Younghusband expedition in 1904. He proved to be a successful and indispensable mediator between the British government and the Tibetans, which gained him huge attention from countries in the region and beyond. Such skills and talent of an individual Bhutanese helped shape the image and reputation of the entire country. An interesting excerpt quoted in Dr. Sonam Kinga's Polity Kingship and Democracy reads:

"One character that did well out of the Younghusband Expedition was that tough, sharp Bhutanese go-between, the Trongsa Penlop, Ugyen Wangchuck. If answering devotion to national self-interest is the hallmark of the good diplomat, he can scarcely be faulted."

Fifty-five years later, the Treaty of Sinchula was renewed, and a new treaty known as the Treaty of Punakha was signed in 1910. The main revision was on the annual subsidy, which was doubled to Nu. 100,000 and an additional clause was included as reproduced hereunder:

"The British Government undertakes to exercise no interference in the internal administration of Bhutan. On its part, the Bhutanese Government agrees to be guided by the advice of the British government in regard to its external relations."     

The clause above served two purposes: firstly, it is a projection of Bhutan's existence as a sovereign independent state. Therefore, the Bhutanese never entertained foreign interference in its internal affairs. Secondly, Gongsar Ugyen Wangchuck sensed the threat of being controlled by the other dominant countries in the region. Thus, Bhutan agreed to be guided by the advice of the British.

Embracing a new neighbor

A huge turnover in the region's geopolitics was when India gained its independence from the British empire in 1947. This also marked an important milestone in the conduct of Bhutan's foreign policy. Two years after India gained independence, the Treaty of Friendship was signed in 1949 with the Government of India. The treaty marked an important step in formalizing our bilateral relations with a new neighbour - India. The main revision was an increase in the annual subsidy to Rs. 500,000 and retention of Article 2 of the earlier treaties replacing "the British Government" with "the Government of India."

It was then followed by the historic exchange of visits by the leaders of the two countries. The third King, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, visited New Delhi at Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru's invitation as the Chief Guest for the Republic Day of India in 1954. Subsequently, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, accompanied by his daughter Indira Gandhi, also visited Bhutan in 1958. The visits indicated a breakthrough for Bhutan to end the self-imposed isolation and engage with the rest of the world.

The signing of the India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty between His Majesty The King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and Hon'ble Foreign Minister (of India) Pranab Mukerjee in 2007 is also a direct outcome of those inherent diplomatic skills exhibited by our visionary Monarchs. The treaty reflected the growing Indo-Bhutan relations, reaffirming trust, confidence, and respect between them. It did away with Article 2 and the clause on the 1865 and 1910 treaties' annual subsidy. The new Article 2 of the India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty states:

"In keeping with the abiding ties of close friendship and cooperation between Bhutan and India, the Government of Kingdom of Bhutan and the Government of the Republic of India shall cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests. Neither government shall allow the use of it's territory for activities harmful to the national security and interest of the other."

On the regional and international fora, Bhutan joined the Colombo Plan in 1962 with a primary objective to garner support for development plans. Later, in 1969, Bhutan's membership in the Universal Postal Union was a crucial step towards informing the rest of the world about our existence as a sovereign independent state. The postage stamps were sent out as "Little Ambassadors" to promote Bhutan's sovereign status and independence. By then, Bhutan had gained huge recognition and attention from the international communities. There was no single objection from the UN Member States, including the UN Security Council, to Bhutan's membership in the United Nations in 1971. Another proactive measure was joining the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in 1973, which safeguarded Bhutan against the major power bloc's dominant ideologies. It was also an important step that assured Bhutan as a responsible member of the international community and, more so, in furthering our relations with like-minded countries.

A bold decision and enhanced relations

An extraordinary move in Bhutan's external engagement was when it recognized Bangladesh as an independent country in 1971. The decision was taken when the region was ostensibly getting highly volatile due to the unrest in the northeastern states of India. Bertil Lintner's Great Game East has a lot more on issues concerning Asia's most volatile frontier. Bhutan continues to receive due regard and appreciation from the Government of Bangladesh for being the first country to recognize its independence. As a result, Bangladesh became the second country with whom Bhutan established bilateral diplomatic relations in 1973 after India in 1968. It truly gives a sense of how Bhutan chose to conduct its foreign policy across time and space.

On a similar front, during the coronation of our Fourth King Jigme Singye Wangchuck in 1974, the Presidents of India and Bangladesh, the King of Nepal, were invited to be the honoured guests. Other invitees included Heads of Mission, based in New Delhi, of the P5 countries, Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Burma, Singapore, Japan, Sri Lanka, Canada, and UN agencies' representatives, including the UN Secretary-General. One could imagine the time and resources the Bhutanese had to acquire to extend excellent arrangements and hospitality in the early 70s for the visiting guests. The country's development in terms of accessibility (transport and communication mostly) and other infrastructure was still at a very nascent stage. Nevertheless, Bhutan has never failed as a nation.

To diversify and broaden the external financing windows, Bhutan joined the World Bank and IMF in 1981 and ADB in 1982. Bhutan was a founding member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and the six other South Asian countries such as India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives in 1985. Afghanistan joined later in 2007. Here, it is important to understand that regional organizations such as SAARC were established when the big and powerful countries were actively engaged for regional supremacy. In other words, external threats to Bhutan's sovereignty and security continued even in the '80s. And being a founding member of SAARC, a regional organization based on equal footing, gave an additional space to project our sovereign status.

A gradual shift in Bhutan's foreign policy

While Bhutan plays an active role as a responsible member of the international community, His Majesty's vision for multilateralism has further strengthened its standing and prominence in the international fora. A notable contribution to international peace and security is Bhutan's long-standing commitment and participation in the UN Peacekeeping Operations.

Drawing inspiration from His Majesty's 112th National Day Address, the government has already launched the process of formulating the 21st Century Economic Roadmap. Economic diplomacy - enhancing trade and commerce, creating a conducive environment for foreign direct investments, and exploring external financing windows to meet domestic priorities - will become an important foreign policy objective.

With rapid technological advancement, His Majesty The King has always emphasized science and technology diplomacy. In the future, Bhutan needs to actively leverage its diplomacy and tap into the growing science base of more advanced countries. It will help develop our human resource capacity and stimulate innovation.

What kept us moving?

The main element of Bhutan's foreign policy pursued by our successive Monarchs was building genuine trust and friendship based on mutual respect with all countries. The exemplary Indo-Bhutan relations nurtured for more than five decades are a direct outcome of such policy. There is also an interesting anecdote, although not widely spoken - the Fourth King's visit to Japan in February 1989 to attend the state funeral of the Showa Emperor. Many foreign dignitaries stepped forward, paid tribute, and left the place. However, unlike them, the Fourth King returned to his seat after paying tribute and waited until the funeral rites were over. Such genuine acts have gained immense goodwill and the people of Japan still vividly talk about them.

Our engagement with the rest of the world had always been, as Kishore Mahbubani wrote, "the minimalist approach." Every single step that our Monarchs took was well-thought-out, timely, and calculated. For instance, our persistent efforts towards maintaining good relations with the P5 countries are paying off even without formal diplomatic relations. Such policy measures allowed Bhutan to focus on domestic priorities like socio-economic development and, more importantly, maintain its sovereignty. As a small and landlocked country, Bhutan had never exhibited its smugness over the inherent superiority in the conduct of its foreign policy.


Centre for Bhutan Studies. Final Programmes for the Coronation, June 1974 and the Silver Jubilee Celebrations June 1999 of His Majesty The King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck. Thimphu. (1999). 1/Coronation.pdf

Das, B.S. Mission to Bhutan: A nation in transition. India. Vikas Publishing House Pvt. Ltd. (1995).

Wangchuk, Dorji. Letter from Japan. (2016).

Institute of Developing Economies. Sub-regional Relations in the Eastern South Asia: with special focus on Bangladesh and Bhutan. (2004). Japan. library/English/Publish/Download/Jrp/pdf/1323.pdf

Kinga, Sonam. Polity, Kingship, and Democracy: A biography of the Bhutanese States. Thimphu. Bhutan Times Ltd. (2009).

Lintner, Bertil. Great Game East: India, China and the struggle for Asia's most volatile frontier. India. HarperCollins Publisher. (2016).

Mahbubani Kishore. Has the West Lost It? A Provocation. The United Kingdom. Penguin Random House. (2018).

Marshall Tim. Prisoners of Geography: Ten maps that explain everything about the world. The United Kingdom. Scribner-Simon and Schuster, Inc. (2016)

Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Tobgye, Sonam. Kuensel. The development of Bhutan's relations with India. February 09 2019.

Economic Roadmap for the 21st Century. neighbor

Foreign Policy