Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Bhutan in a Press release on October 14, highlighted that a Memorandum of Understanding for a Three Step Roadmap for expediting the Bhutan China Boundary Negotiations was signed in a virtual signing ceremony.
The Release stated, that Foreign Minister of Bhutan, Lyonpo Tandi Dorji and the Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs of China, Wu Jianghao signed the Memorandum of Understanding between the Royal Government of Bhutan and the Government of the People’s Republic of China.
The Memorandum of Understanding on the Three-Step Roadmap will provide a fresh impetus to the Boundary Talks said the Release.
It is expected that the implementation of this Roadmap in a spirit of goodwill, understanding and accommodation will bring the boundary negotiations to a successful conclusion that is acceptable to both sides.
During the 10th Expert Group Meeting in Kunming in April this year, the two sides agreed on a Three-Step Roadmap that will build on the 1988 Guiding Principles and help to expedite the ongoing boundary negotiations.
The Memorandum of Understanding will be exchanged between the two sides through diplomatic channel.
Bhutan’s Ambassador to India Gen(Retd) Vetsop Namgyel and China’s Ambassador to India Sun Weidong participated at the virtual meeting, as Bhutan and China don’t have direct diplomatic relations, and liaise via their embassies in Delhi.
Background Given in Press Release
Boundary negotiations between Bhutan and China began in 1984 and the two sides have held twenty four rounds of Boundary Talks and ten rounds of meeting at the Expert Group level. The negotiations which have been conducted in a spirit of understanding and accommodation have been guided by the 1988 Joint Communique on the Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the Boundary and the 1998 Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace, Tranquility and status quo in the Bhutan-China Border Areas.
It is commonly believed that the two countries are discussing a swap in the Western Area near the India-China-Bhutan trijunction measuring 269 sq. kms including the Doklam which saw India and China standoff in 2017, and the Jakarlung and Pasamlung valleys located in Central Bhutan, which measure 495 sq. kms.
China has also laid claims to Bhutan’s Eastern Sakteng region.
Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson was non committal on the issued while briefing the media on October 14 in New Delhi.
Bagchi said, “We have noted the signing of the memorandum of understanding between Bhutan and China today. You are aware that Bhutan and China have been holding a boundary negotiation since 1984. India has similarly been holding boundary negotiations with China. I think for the moment I will limit myself to just these comments on it. As I said, we have noticed the development we are aware of it. And we are also aware as you are that they've been holding boundary negotiations”.
China – Global Times Comment
Global Times the Chinese semi official website on international affairs noted that Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs of China, Wu Jianghao commented during the meeting that "China will follow Xi Jinping Thought on diplomacy, follow the neighborhood diplomacy featuring amity, sincerity, mutual benefit and inclusiveness, and be a good neighbor, friend and partner of Bhutan on the principles of equality and peaceful coexistence."
The Global Times attempted https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202110/1236393.shtml to convey that “the meeting shows Bhutan's willingness to manage border affairs independently, rebutting India's claims of the "China threat," and reducing the risk on its eastern China-India border”.
The Way Ahead
The MOU signed on October 14 indicates that Bhutan and China are seeking to expedite resolution of the boundary dispute through a three steps which have not been identified in the Press Release, but an important one is expected to be demarcation of the boundary.
Despite the MOU and the steps identified, progress will remain slow given the complexity and Bhutan’s commitment to India of not impacting India’s interests in any way, which in this case primarily denote the dagger of the Chumbi Valley projections towards the Chicken’s Neck of the Siliguri Corridor.