Tashichho Dzong, a fortress that serves both as a government department and Buddhist monastery in Thimphu, Bhutan. Photo: AFP/The Yomiuri Shimbun
Tashichho Dzong, a fortress that serves both as a government department and Buddhist monastery in Thimphu, Bhutan. Photo: AFP / The Yomiuri Shimbun

Dr Tandi Dorji, the foreign minister of Bhutan, was previously a pediatrician. As the Covid-19 pandemic has created challenges worldwide that require innovative solutions, Asia Times talked to Dorji about global collaboration during the pandemic.

Dorji has played an important role in fostering relations between India and Bhutan. In this conversation with Asia Times, he discusses future areas of collaboration, cultural understanding and international engagement at the youth level between the two countries. 

Vidhi Bubna: Before entering politics, you were a public health researcher. How do you think global collaborations can be fostered during the Covid-19 pandemic?

Tandi Dorji: The Covid-19 pandemic has shown starkly how we are only as safe as the most vulnerable population or country. A challenge of such nature and scale can only be conquered through global solidarity and cooperation.

There are countries that have several financial, technical, or human resources at their disposal to make their response efforts more efficient. Then there are those that are constrained by the lack of basic resources with weak public health systems that cannot be sustained through their sole effort alone. Recognizing this disparity and accepting that a weak link can jeopardize our collective efforts is key to global collaboration. 

Governments, health organizations, private sectors, scientists, and researchers should work together with a common aim. Countries with research and financial capabilities must come forward to support organizations like the WHO in responding to pressing global crises in terms of speeding vaccine research collaborations, and regulatory ambition when vaccines do become available to ensure equal access and affordability for all countries.

It calls for renewed diplomatic efforts and increased funding programs by those countries with resources. 

VB: India and Bhutan have decided to increase collaboration in space exploration. Do you expect to see more Bhutanese youth taking up space studies in the future?

TD: Yes, in recent times, as everywhere in the world, there has been a shift in focus on STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] programs. His Majesty the King [Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck] has stressed the importance of STEM and harnessing technological advances, which can only happen by investing in these subjects.

As economies progress and the world becomes more digital, the national labor market will require skills with an increasing emphasis on technical abilities, and it will be important that we prepare our children to participate in discoveries and technologies that will unfold in future. Space is one of them, and although we are small and lack resources, it will be important that our young people understand the potential and importance of taking up space studies.

The government will certainly encourage and promote it.

VB: What are some areas in which you think Bhutan and India can collaborate in the future?

TD: India is one of the largest economies in the world and it is predicted to be the second-largest economy by 2050. There is much scope for collaborations in sectors other than those we are already engaged in. Indian investment in tourism, information technology, space and satellites, and pharmaceuticals are some areas that could be explored in the immediate future. 

VB: Tourism and cultural exploration are important to foster empathy and global understanding. What are some ways in which Bhutan is staying connected with the world as international tourism has been restricted?

TD: Despite the travel restrictions in place, technology has provided us various modes and methods to stay connected, both within and outside the country. We continue to make use of the various technological platforms and adapt to the new normal. These have further enabled us to realize that we can do more with less, such as having online meetings, conferences, etc.

VB: Do you think that foreign affairs and international relations should be included in school curriculums to increase empathy and understanding?

TD: In many ways, our world is more interconnected than ever before – from politics to economics to health, as is evident from the Covid-19 pandemic. To succeed in this new global age, it is important that our students are capable of thinking globally. They should be knowledgeable about global issues, communicate across cultures, and act on issues of global significance.

Young minds should understand how their country’s foreign-policy objectives are constructed and how it affects their daily lives. However, this cannot be achieved just through school curriculums alone. It depends largely on the principles and values which construct our society and informs our education system.

We must collectively create an environment in which our youth feel involved and can develop the ability to engage in constructive discussion and exercise other forms of proactive and good citizenship, including in the area of foreign affairs and international relations. 

VB: What role do you think cultural understanding plays in increasing international collaboration?

TD: Any form of cooperation requires two or more different actors to work together and understand each other’s differing perspectives and views. Cultural understanding can play a very important role in creating empathy for the other side’s paradigm and mindsets. When you can understand how a specific position is informed by the person/country’s cultural particularities, their position becomes more acceptable.

Nevertheless, cultural differences have not prevented people and countries from working together. Contrary to such a belief, the past century of different countries coming together under the purview of common international frameworks have provided opportunities for different cultures to reach out, understand, and accept differences. 

VB: How do you think international engagement and collaboration can be increased between the youth of India and Bhutan?

TD: We should encourage more exchange programs between the schools and colleges of the two countries, in the fields of culture, sports, and science. More youth-focused programs must be encouraged.

VB: What is something that you appreciate about Indian culture?

TD: As one of the most culturally diverse countries, India is a cultural capital. Having studied and lived in India for more than 15 years of [my] life, I have experienced various cultures across several states and have found them to be very rich. I appreciate the strong cultural heritage of India and how it has managed to preserve and promote it. 

Vidhi Bubna is a freelance writer based in Mumbai who covers politics, defense, economy and international relations.