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China, Bhutan hold border talks, ink pact on functions of JTT for delimitation, demarcation of boundary

Beijing: China and Bhutan on Tuesday signed a “Cooperation Agreement” outlining the responsibilities and functions of the Joint Technical Team (JTT) on the delimitation and demarcation of the boundary between the two countries after their 25th round of border talks here.

Bhutan’s Foreign Minister Dr Tandi Dorji, who is currently visiting Beijing, and China’s Vice Foreign Minister Sun Weidong held the 25th Round of Boundary Talks on Monday and Tuesday.

On the sideline of border talks, Dorji met Chinese Vice President Han Zheng on Tuesday and held talks with Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Monday during which they urged Bhutan to establish diplomatic ties with China and resolve the boundary issue as soon as possible to transform the relations between the two neighbours into legal form.

The two sides held in-depth discussions on the boundary negotiations and noted the progress made through a series of Expert Group Meetings since the 24th Round of Boundary Talks in 2016, a joint press release issued by the Bhutanese Foreign Ministry said.

During the talks, the two leaders of the delegations signed the Cooperation Agreement between Bhutan and China on the Responsibilities and Functions of the Joint Technical Team (JTT) on the Delimitation and Demarcation of the Bhutan-China Boundary, it said.

The JTT was established during the 13th Expert Group Meeting to assist the Expert Group in the implementation of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on the Three-Step Roadmap.

The two sides agreed to continue working together to simultaneously push forward the implementation of all the steps of the Three-Step Roadmap, it said, adding that both sides agreed to build on the positive momentum.

The discussions were held in a warm and friendly atmosphere in keeping with the ties of friendship and cooperation between Bhutan and China. The two sides also exchanged views on enhancing bilateral relations and matters of mutual interest, the press release said.

In his meeting with Dorji, Han said both sides agreed to accelerate the boundary demarcation process and the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Han said that China and Bhutan are friendly neighbours and although the two countries have not yet established diplomatic relations, they have long maintained friendly exchanges.

“China always respects Bhutan’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, and is willing to strengthen exchanges at all levels and in all fields, expand practical cooperation on the economy, trade, culture and tourism, and accelerate the boundary demarcation process and the establishment of diplomatic relations with Bhutan to bring more benefits to the two countries and the two peoples,” Han said.

For his part, Dorji told Han that the Bhutanese government attaches great importance to the development of relations with China and abides firmly by the one-China principle. Both sides have firm determination and a sincere desire to demarcate their boundaries and establish diplomatic relations at an early date, state-run Xinhua news agency reported.

Wang told Dorji that the restoration of diplomatic ties will serve the long-term interests of both countries, a Chinese Foreign Ministry press release here said.

“The conclusion of boundary negotiations and the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Bhutan fully serve the long-term and fundamental interests of the country and nation of Bhutan,” Wang said.

“China is ready to work with Bhutan in the same direction, seize the historic opportunity, complete this important process as soon as possible, and fix and develop China-Bhutan friendly relations in legal form,” Wang, also a member of the powerful Political Bureau of the ruling Communist Party, told Dorji.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry press release quoted Dorji as saying that Bhutan firmly abides by the one-China principle meaning Taiwan and Tibet are part of China and stands ready to work with China for an early settlement of the boundary issue and advance the political process of establishing diplomatic relations.

China and Bhutan do not have diplomatic relations but maintain contact through periodic visits by officials.

While Beijing resolved the boundary disputes with the 12 other neighbours, India and Bhutan are the only two countries China has yet to sign the border agreements.

China in recent years stepped up efforts to establish full-fledged diplomatic ties with Bhutan and to expedite negotiations to reach a settlement for the vexed border dispute which was complicated by Beijing’s attempts to claim Doklam despite Thimphu’s assertions that the area belonged to it.

China’s attempts to build a road in the Doklam plateau in 2017 resulted in an India-China stand-off triggering tensions between the two neighbours.

India strongly opposed the construction of the road by the Chinese military at the Doklam tri-junction as it would have impacted its overall security interests since it runs close to the narrow Siliguri Corridor also known as the Chicken Neck connecting India with its north-east.

The standoff ended after Beijing dropped its plan to build the road.

Also in 2020, China made a surprising claim on Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary in Bhutan at the Global Environment Facility (GEF) Council by opposing funding for the project.

Bhutan has lodged a demarche to the Chinese Embassy in India over China’s claim over the sanctuary made at the GEF meeting.

China has also ramped up efforts to develop the villages located along borders with India Bhutan and Nepal with infrastructure development and preferential policies.

Beijing and Thimphu held their 13th Expert Group Meeting (EGM) on the Bhutan-China Boundary issues in Beijing in August this year.

Dorji’s current visit to Beijing comes in the backdrop of remarks by Bhutanese Prime Minister Lotay Tshering in March this year that Bhutan hopes to complete the demarcation of territories with China within one or two meetings.

“We do not encounter major border problems with China, but certain territories are not yet demarcated. We still have to discuss it and draw a line,” Dr Tshering told Belgian newspaper La Libre in an interview published during his visit to Brussels in March this year.

As Tshering’s remarks raised concerns in India considering the close ties, Bhutan King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck visited New Delhi in April and met Prime Minister Narendra Modi during which the two leaders resolved to expand the close ties between the countries.

Briefing the media on the talks between Prime Minister Modi and Bhutan King, Foreign Secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra said the two countries share ties characterised by trust, goodwill, and mutual understanding.

India and Bhutan remain in close touch relating to our shared interest, including security interest, he said.

After his interview stoked controversy, Tshering told The Bhutanese newspaper that he had said nothing new in his statements to the Belgian paper on Doklam and the Bhutan-China boundary talks. “I have said nothing new and there is no change in position,” he said.

In his talks with Dorji on Monday, Wang also said China always prioritises neighbourhood diplomacy in its overall diplomacy and adheres to the principle that all countries, big or small, are equals.

The Chinese press release also said Dorji expressed Thimphu’s backing for President Xi Jinping’s Global Security Initiative (GSI), the Global Development Initiative (GDI) and the Global Cultural Initiative (GCI) to further Beijing’s strategic initiatives.

(Published 24 October 2023, 23:51 IST)

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