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1st April 2023 (8 Topics)

Bhutan is desperate to settle a dispute with China

Context

The Prime Minister of Bhutan, Lotay Tshering has given China equal weightage among Delhi, Thimphu, and Beijing in settling the Doklam border dispute.

About Bhutan’s Geography:

  • Bhutan shares a 477 km-long border with China.
  • China claims certain territories from Bhutan:
    • In the north - Pasamlung and Jakarlung valleys; both of these places are culturally vital for Bhutan.
    • In the west - Doklam, Dramana, and Shakhatoe, Yak Chu and Charithang Chu, and Sinchulungpa and Langmarpo valleys.
    • These places are pasture-rich and strategically located in the Bhutan-India-China trijunction, lying close to India’s Siliguri Corridor.
    • In 2020, China made new claims on Bhutan’s East in the Sakteng sanctuary.
  • Eastern Bhutan in the list of disputed territories presently.

The eastern sector of Bhutan has a large Bhutanese population, traditional Dzongs (fortified monastery) and two Bhutanese districts since time immemorial.

Background of Border issues between Bhutan and China:

  • Early Chinese territorial claims on Bhutan:Chinese claims on Bhutanese territory were first made when Mao Zedong declared in the original 1939 version of the Chinese Revolution and the Communist Party that "the correct boundaries of China would include Burma, Bhutan, and Nepal".
  • The annexation of Bhutanese enclaves: In July 1959, along with the occupation of Tibet, the Chinese People's Liberation Army occupied several Bhutanese enclaves in western Tibet which were under Bhutanese administration for more than 300 years and had been given to Bhutan by a Ladakhi King Singye Namgyal.
  • Chinese map claiming territories in Bhutan: A Chinese map published in 1961 showed China claiming territories in Bhutan, Nepal, and the Kingdom of Sikkim.
    • Incursions by Chinese soldiers and Tibetan herdsmen also provoked tensions in Bhutan.
    • Imposing a cross-border trade embargo and closing the border, Bhutan established extensive military ties with India.
  • Engagement: Until the 1970s, India represented Bhutan's concerns in talks with China over the broader Sino-Indian border conflicts.
    • Obtaining membership in the United Nations in 1971, Bhutan began to take a more independent course in its foreign policy.
    • In 1984, China and Bhutan began annual, direct talks over the border dispute.
    • However, China's building of roads on what Bhutan asserts to be Bhutanese territory, allegedly in violation of the 1998 agreement, has provoked tensions.

On 11 August 2016 Bhutan Foreign Minister Damcho Dorji visited Beijing, capital of China, for the 24th round of boundary talks with Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao.

  • Both sides made comments to show their readiness to strengthen co-operations in various fields and hope of settling the boundary issues.
  • Doklam crisis, 2017: When China started constructing a road in the disputed area of Doklam, Bhutan asked for help from India and it sent the army to stop the construction. The military standoff in the area lasted more than two months.
    • However, after diplomatic conversations between the two sides, both countries agreed to withdraw troops from the region.
  • Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary: China raised a new dispute over territory in June 2020 that has never come up in boundary talks earlier.
    • Beijing objected to the grant for Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary (SWS) in eastern Bhutan’s Trashigang district bordering India and China, claiming that the location was disputed, during the virtual meeting of the Global Environment Facility (GEF).

What are the challenges in solving the border dispute between China and Bhutan?

  • Bhutan-China border dispute is not a bilateral issue:
    • The first challenge is to see if China would be keen on discussing the tri-junction areas with India.
    • For this, China has to shun its decades-old policy of treating the Bhutan-China border dispute as a bilateral issue and involve India as well.
  • Increasing Chinese expansion in the Western disputed regions:
    • India has briefed and sensitised Bhutan of China’s increasing inroads on multiple occasions.
    • Bhutan lacks the material capability and presence to avert these continuing intrusions.
    • Despite this, it stays reluctant to seek more Indian assistance, fearing more Chinese assertiveness.
  • China is keen on establishing diplomatic relations with Bhutan:
    • China’s solution to border disputes has often been inclusive of establishing diplomatic relations with Bhutan.
    • Such demands from Beijing will only intensify as its tensions with the US and India increase.

India’s view:

  • India views Chinese presence near Doklam as a major security concern close to the strategic Siliguri corridor. China has also staked claim to a wildlife sanctuary in Bhutan near the border with Arunachal.
  • This assumes significance as, in December 2022, Indian and Chinese army troops clashed along the LAC in the Tawang Sector of Arunachal Pradesh.
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