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Bhutan and China Report Momentum in Boundary Talks

In the media brouhaha over the Modi Xi bilateral on the sidelines of the BRICS Summit in South Africa, an important event related to the boundary issue but between Bhutan and China has not received the required attention.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs and External Trade of the Royal Government of Bhutan indicated in a Joint Press Release with the Chinese counter parts that substantial progress in talks on resolution of the boundary issue has taken place.

The release was issued after the 13th Expert Group Meeting (EGM) on the Bhutan-China Boundary Issues was held in Beijing, China from August 21st to 24th, 2023. The meeting was co-chaired by Mr. Letho Tobdhen Tangbi, Secretary of the International Boundaries of Bhutan and Mr. Hong Liang, Director-General of the Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China.

The release stated that building on the consensus reached at the 12th Expert Group Meeting, the two sides had candid, friendly and constructive discussions on continuously implementing the MoU on the Three-Step Road Map for Expediting the Bhutan-China Boundary Negotiations.

Both sides agreed to expedite and take simultaneous steps to implement the Three-Step Road Map. One of the important outcomes of the 13th EGM is the establishment of the Joint Technical Team on the Delimitation of Bhutan-China Boundary which held its first meeting on the sidelines of the 13th EGM.

The two sides also agreed upon keeping the positive momentum of frequent Expert Group Meetings, holding the 14th Expert Group Meeting on the Bhutan-China Boundary Issues as soon as possible and maintaining communication on holding the 25th Round of Bhutan-China Boundary Talk.

Bhutan and China seem to be moving rapidly towards resolution of the boundary issue. 13 expert group meetings and 26 rounds of talks have been held since the process began in 1984.

While initially the negotiations were on two areas of dispute – Doklam or the Western Sector [269 square kms] near the India-China-Bhutan trijunction, and the Jakarlung and Pasamlung valleys in the Northern Sector [495 square kms], China has recently added claims to the Sakteng wildlife sanctuary in the East which borders Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh.

Thus, China now refers to the disputes in “western, middle and eastern” sections. China has thus created an additional leverage hoping to bargain a subsequent favourable swap.

Given widening of the number of disputed areas two to three sectors, India’s core interest in the Western Sector providing depth to the Siliguri Corridor connecting Northeast India, concerns of New Delhi are expected to receive an expression in the talks by the Bhutanese side given the Indo Bhutan Treaty renewed in the India Bhutan Treaty of 2007.

Article 2 of the Treaty states, “In keeping with the abiding ties of close friendship and cooperation between Bhutan and India, the Government of the Kingdom of Bhutan and the Government of the Republic of India shall cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests. Neither Government shall allow the use of its territory for activities harmful to the national security and interest of the other”.

In the month of July, there were multiple interactions at high level in India Bhutan relations. His Majesty the King of Bhutan granted an Audience to the Indian Foreign Secretary, Vinay Mohan Kwatra, in Gelephu.

The Foreign Secretary was in Bhutan to discuss plans to further expand bilateral cooperation between Bhutan and India, which were discussed between the two governments during His Majesty’s visit to New Delhi in April this year.

As per India’s Ministry of External Affairs, Bhutan’s Foreign Secretary of Bhutan Aum Pema Choden paid an official visit to India from 28-29 July 2023.

The two Foreign Secretaries reviewed the entire spectrum of bilateral cooperation and discussed ways to further strengthen it across diverse sectors. It is anticipated that India would have underlined the core interests in the boundary issue in the high level meetings taking place since April this year.

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