The Chinese Ambassador to India, who is entitled to oversee Bhutan affairs as well, has just concluded his three-day visit to Bhutan from 10 to 13 October. During his visit, he met King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, Prime Minister Lotay Tshering, and Foreign Minister, Tandi Dorji.
Discussions focused on maintaining friendly exchanges, improving relations, expanding win-win cooperation, promoting China-Bhutan border talks, and moving ahead with the three-step roadmap.
This is the first visit by any Chinese officials after Bhutan and China signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for a 3-step roadmap to expedite boundary talks a year ago. Bhutan has long history of border dispute with China, remain unresolved despite several rounds of talks. The talks have been marred by Chinese claims of several territories including Pasamlung and Jakarlung valleys in the north; Doklam, Dramana, and Shakhatoe, Yak Chu and Charithang Chu, and Sinchulungpa and Langmarpo valleys in the west and Sakteng sanctuary in the east.
These territories have been flagged by Indian authorities are sensitive and critically strategic in nature, which hinders the progress in Bhutan-China border talks.
The countries begun border negotiations in 1984. In 1988, they drew on fundamental principles to guide negotiations, and in 1998, they signed an agreement to continue negotiations and maintain the status quo. To date, both countries have held 10 expert group meetings and 24 rounds of border negotiations.
Recent developments also indicate an increasing urgency and understanding between India and Bhutan on how to deal with China’s expansionism. First, both countries are piggybacking on sector-wise negotiations. While Bhutan has maintained this stance since the 1990s, India has openly shown interest in this tactic since 2020. As tensions with China peaked at Galwan, India reportedly asked Bhutan to solve its territorial disputes with China so that all the stakeholders could focus on the complex trilateral junctions. In July, the Bhutanese Foreign Minister clarified by asserting that the 2021 MoU only focuses on solving bilateral issues with China and wouldn’t impact the trijunction areas of the Western borders.
Second, there seems to be mutual interest in using the 2012 agreement to limit China’s expansionism. During the 2017 Doklam standoff, India had strongly condemned China for not abiding by the 2012 agreement, which stated the trilateral junctions would include negotiations with all the respective parties. However, Bhutan had made no such statement during the standoff, despite criticising China for constructing roads within Bhutanese territories. But the recent affirmation of solving the dispute trilaterally also suggests that Bhutan is showing more interest in the agreement and is respecting Indian concerns and toeing with its stance.