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China And Bhutan Border Dispute

Resuming the boundary negotiations between Bhutan and China, the 25th round of talks was held after seven years in 2023. The two countries signed a Cooperation Agreement on the “Responsibilities and Functions of the Joint Technical Team on the Delimitation and Demarcation of the Bhutan-China Boundary”. The last talks were held in 2016 and a 3-Step Roadmap was initiated in 2021 for border resolution.

Since 1984, Bhutan and China have held 24 rounds of talks to decide on the shared contiguous border, Bhutan’s north and west (about 470km) with the Tibetan Autonomous Region. However, with the Doklam Standoff between the Indian and Chinese armies in 2017, the 25th round was not conducted.

The 3-Step Roadmap

This crucial roadmap incorporated a Memorandum of Understanding between Bhutan and China, signed at the 10th round of the Expert Group Meeting in Kunming, China, in 2021. China outlined a three-stage process; first, the delimitation of the border on maps through talks between the two sides; second, joint surveys; and third, the actual demarcation of the 477km border.

In January 2023, the 11th round of Expert Group Meeting was held, followed by the 12th round in May and the 13th round in August. The Bhutanese Delegation Lyonpo Tandi Dorji, Foreign Minister of Bhutan, and the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi expressed their desire for a quick borer settlement.

The Prime Minister of Bhutan, Lotay Tshering, said in an interview with The Hindu that “progress is expected to be made and Bhutan and China are inching towards completing the 3-Step Roadmap. The two sides had “managed two to three meetings and we feel we are nearing the completion of the three-step roadmap” and that the talks also included a possible trade-off between Chinese claims in Doklam and the ones in northern Bhutan. 

The Indian Interest

Primarily, the 269 sq km of the western border along the Chumbi Valley and two northern areas of Jakarlung and Pasamlung Valleys, 495 sq km are the contested areas between the two countries. Since 2020, China has also raised its claims in eastern Bhutan. Further, two tri-junction points between Bhutan, China, and India, the Doklam and the eastern terminus of the McMohan Line are also critical in this scenario.

India views the Doklam region as Bhutanese territory which will be ceded to China in these settlements and thereby enhance its sights on the Siliguri Corridor. With shared security interests, therefore, Bhutan and India recognise the need to maintain close relations and coordination.

Analysis by the Observer Research Foundation presented the agreement points between China and India, where “any attempt to unilaterally determine trijunction violates” their understanding reached at the beginning of the Doklam crisis in 2017. Tshering stated in an interview with a Belgian newspaper in March, “Doklam is a junction point between India, China and Bhutan. It is not up to Bhutan alone to fix the problem. There are three of us… We can discuss this as soon as the other two parties are ready.”

Maintaining formal bilateral ties in the aftermath of these negotiations remains essential for both Bhutan and India. As Bhutan does not have formal diplomatic ties with any of the  UNSC P5 members, its relations with China can establish diplomatic influence. India, on the other hand, is wary of these relations due to the threats to the Siliguri corridor which links northeastern India to its mainland. The possibility of a land swap between Bhutan and China is also a major challenge for India as China would then have access to select territories closer to Doklam.

Passang Dorji, in his doctoral thesis titled, “Sino-Indian Competition over Bhutan and Nepal: Small State Responses to Great Power Politics”, stated, “In this part of the world, especially in geopolitics, there is a tendency to jump to the narrative that whatever Bhutan does with China is bad for India, which is not necessarily true”. India’s close ties with Bhutan, while important, are not a hindrance in the Bhutan-China border negotiations. Essentially, the continued absence of an agreement between the two countries is evidence of persisting geopolitical instability in the region.

Further Developments

Since the series of talks conducted in 2023, there has not been an absence of action by either country. China has continued its unsanctioned programme of settlement construction across the contested border. It is also argued by analysts that Bhutan’s Jakarlung Valley may become a part of the Chinese territory permanently after the expected border deal is announced.

Dorji in October 2023 became the first Bhutanese Foreign Minister to travel to Beijing; he said, “We hope to see a line being drawn – this side Bhutan and that side China”.

Robert Barnett a Tibet expert at SOAS, University of London, remarked, “There have been two major waves of [Chinese] construction in the Jakarlung. We know that the Chinese authorities are energetically recruiting Tibetans to move to these new locations and putting a lot of money into major construction efforts there”.

Still, the conclusion to the negotiations is pending along with the details of the agreement.

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