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India on alert as Bhutan, China talk about settling boundary row, establishing diplomatic ties

New Delhi: India is keeping watch as Bhutan appears to be moving closer to not only clinching a deal to settle its boundary dispute with China but also establishing formal diplomatic relations with the communist country.

Bhutanese Foreign Minister Thandi Dorji called on Chinese Vice President Han Zheng in Beijing on Tuesday. He had a meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Monday. The back-to-back meetings focused on the demarcation of the boundary between Bhutan and China and establishing formal diplomatic relations between the two.

A source toldDHthat New Delhi was keeping watch on the Bhutan-China boundary negotiations and would expect Thimphu to take it into confidence before establishing diplomatic relations with Beijing.

“Both sides have the sincere desire and firm determination to complete demarcation (of boundary) and establish diplomatic relations at an early date,” Dorji was quoted as saying in a statement issued by the Chinese government. “Bhutan is willing to maintain the good momentum of cooperation in various fields with China and promote greater development of bilateral relations.”

Han told Dorji that Beijing would, as always, respect the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Bhutan, notwithstanding reports about China’s encroachment on the territories of the tiny nation in the Himalayas.

The territorial row between Bhutan and China covers an area of about 764 sq km. China in 2020 also staked a claim on the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary in eastern Bhutan. Bhutan rejected the claim. Thimphu and Beijing had earlier held 24 rounds of boundary negotiations till August 2016. The negotiations, however, had remained stalled after the stand-off between the Indian Army and the Chinese PLA in Doklam Plateau.

The Chinese and the Bhutanese officials, however, had a meeting in Kunming in the southern region of the communist country in April 2021. The meeting led to the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on October 14, 2021, for “a three-step roadmap” to resolve the Bhutan-China boundary dispute. They had another meeting in the capital city of the Yunnan province of China from January 10 to 13 this year, when it was agreed to expedite the negotiation. The two sides in August held a meeting of an expert group and constituted a technical team for the demarcation of the boundary. The newly constituted technical team also had its first meeting around the same time.

India is concerned over the possibility of Bhutan giving up its claim over areas in the vicinity of Doklam in western Bhutan in exchange for China narrowing or giving up its territorial claims in the north-central region of the tiny Himalayan Shangri-La. If China gains control over the entire Doklam Plateau, sans the tri-junction point, as well as the nearby areas, it will get a strategic advantage against India. The Chinese PLA will find it easier to conduct military manoeuvres aimed at blocking the Siliguri Corridor — the narrow stretch of land linking India’s Northeast with the rest of the country.

Bhutan at present does not have any formal diplomatic relations with China or any of the four other permanent members of the United Nations.

Beijing, however, has been prodding Thimphu for the establishment of bilateral diplomatic relations – a move, which, New Delhi believes, has been part of its endeavour to expand footprints in the neighbourhood of India.

Ever since Thimphu expedited its boundary negotiation with Beijing, New Delhi conveyed that it would expect Bhutan to continue to be sensitive to the security interests of India while negotiating with China.

The 1949 Bhutan-China Friendship Treaty had been renegotiated a few months before the erstwhile kingdom had held its first democratic elections in December, 2007, and March, 2008. A clause that required Bhutan to be guided by India in conduct of its external relations had been removed. This had diluted the unique relations between India and Bhutan to a certain extent. But Article 2 of the new treaty also requires Bhutan and India to “cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests”. It says that neither government shall allow the use of its territory for activities harmful to the national security and interest of the other.

(Published 24 October 2023, 23:22 IST)

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