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Bhutan ‘desperate’ to settle a dispute with China

  • Category
    International Relations
  • Published
    7th Apr, 2023

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:
  • North - Pasamlung and Jakarlung valleys; both of these places are culturally vital for Bhutan.
  • 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 tri-junction, 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.
  • Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary:  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).
  • The Doklam issue: Doklam, or Donglang in Chinese, is an area spread over less than a 100 sq. km comprising a plateau and a valley at the trijunction between India, Bhutan and China.
  • It is surrounded by the Chumbi Valley of Tibet, Bhutan’s Ha Valley and

Why Doklam is important for India?

  • Strategic location:
    • Doklam is strategically located close to the Siliguri Corridor, which connects mainland India with its north-eastern region.
    • The corridor, also called Chicken’s Neck, is a vulnerable point for India.
    • India views Chinese presence near Doklam as a major security concern close to the strategic Siliguri corridor.
  • Extending Chinese territory:
    • The Chinese have a deep interest in Doklam, which would give them a commanding view of and an easy access to both the Chumbi Valley and the Siliguri Corridor.
    • The Chinese government released a map to accuse India of trespassing into its territory.

India-Bhutan Relations:

  • Diplomatic relations between India and Bhutan were established in 1968 with the appointment of a resident representative of India in Thimphu.
  • The basic framework of India – Bhutan bilateral relations is the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation of 1949 between the two countries, which was updated and signed during the visit to India of Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck in February 2007.
  • The King of Bhutan Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck recently visited New Delhi, where he met with Prime Minister of India.
  • Points of Discussion:
    • India agreed to extend an additional standby credit facility.  This would be over and above the two existing standby credit facilities that are operating between the two countries.

Standby credit facility (SCF) provides financial assistance to low-income countries (LICs) with short-term balance of payments needs.

    • India is going to set up the first Integrated Check Post (ICP) along India-Bhutan border.
    • The proposed Kokrajhar-Gelephu rail link project through Government of India support in consultation with Bhutan.
    • In the field of hydro-power, India has agreed to an upward revision of the tariff of the Chhukha hydro-electric project.

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.

China aims to shift the tri-junction southward, which would make the entire Doklam plateau legally part of China, a move that India rejects.

  • 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.
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