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Bhutan China Boundary Dispute – Progressing Towards Resolution

Published Jul 14, 2020
Updated Jul 14, 2020

The 24th Round of Bhutan – China Boundary Talks was held in Beijing on 11th August 2016. The report of the Joint Technical Field Survey in the Western Sector adjoining the strategic Chumbi Valley was endorsed in the meeting. This denotes steady progress  in resolution of the differences by both sides.

Bhutan China Relations and India

 Historically China has boundary disputes with 14 neighbours with whom it shares the land border. Of these disputes 12 have been mutually settled. India and Bhutan are the only two neighbours with whom negotiations are ongoing for resolution of the dispute.

See – India Bhutan China Strategic Triangle

India and China have established the mechanism of the Special Representatives of the Prime Minsters for resolution of the dispute. Annual dialogues are held under this mechanism. The 19th Special Representatives’ Meeting on the China-India Boundary issue was held in Beijing on 20 April this year (2016). State Councilor Yang Jiechi, was the special representative from China and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval represented India

Both countries agreed to the Special Representatives mechanism appointed in 2003 which set off a three-stage process. The first stage of an agreement on the guiding principles and setting political parameters for settlement has been completed in 2005. Dialogue is on for the second stage to work out a framework for settlement which is likely to be long drawn as there is a basic difference on which portion of the boundary constitutes the dispute. Thereafter joint surveys, demarcation and delineation will be carried out.

Boundary talks between China and Bhutan are more advanced than that with India. The talks between Bhutan and China began in 1984. The basis for boundary negotiations between the two countries are two treaties: the Four guiding principles on the settlement of the boundary issues, signed in 1988, and the agreement on maintenance of peace and tranquillity along the border areas, signed in 1998.

There are two areas of dispute between Bhutan and China, one falling in North West Bhutan covering  269 sq km and the other Central Bhutan covering 495 sq km.  The North West area comprises Doklam (89 sq km), Sinchulumpa (42 Sq km), and Shakhatoe (138 Sq km) in Samste, Haa and Paro districts and Central parts the Pasamlung and the Jakarlung valley in the Wangdue Phodrang district.

A joint survey of the disputed areas has been completed. Apart from the talks between the high representatives that is foreign ministers expert group meetings and Joint Technical Field Survey teams have been formed to resolve the issue.

Joint Technical Field Survey involves the areas of Doklam, Charithang, Sinchulumpa and Dramana in Bhutan’s North West and Pasamlung and the Jakarlung valley in the Wangdue Phodrang district in Central Bhutan.

In this sequence, 24th Round of Bhutan – China Boundary Talks was held in Beijing on 11th August 2016 as per a release by the  Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bhutan.

The talks were led by Lyonpo Damcho Dorji, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Bhutan and Mr. Liu Zhenmin, Vice Foreign Minister of China. During the talks, the two leaders held in-depth discussions on the boundary issue. They also exchanged views on bilateral relations and other matters of mutual interest.

The Talks reviewed the progress on the boundary issue following the 23rd Round of Boundary Talks held in Thimphu in August 2015 and the two Expert Group Meetings held in December 2015 in Beijing and March 2016 in Thimphu.

The 24th Round of Boundary Talks endorsed the report of the Joint Technical Field Survey of the disputed areas in the Western Sector carried out by the Expert Group of the two sides. The meeting commended the Expert Group for successfully carrying out the joint survey. The meeting also directed the two leaders of the Expert Group to continue discussions on the basis of the progress achieved thus far.

The two leaders expressed satisfaction with the Talks, which were held in a warm and friendly atmosphere.

Joint Technical Field Survey of Bayul Pasamlung was carried out in September, 2013. Bayul Pasamlung comprises of 495 square kilometres of disputed territory in the the Central Sector.

That the two sides have endorsed the Joint Technical Field Survey in the 24th Round in the Western Sector would imply that delineation of the boundary has been concluded in both the sectors but not agreed upon.

Read India Bhutan China Strategic Triangle

It is reasonably well established by now that China is looking for a package deal with Bhutan seeking areas in the North West while establishing Bhutan’s claims in the Central region. This offer was first made in the sixth round of talks held in August 1990. Chinese offer of quid pro quo does not take into account that the territory is a part of the sovereign state of Bhutan and strategic interests seem to be pushing Beijing to offer a package to the southern neighbor.

Herein lies the rub where India’s interests come in given proximity of the North West areas to the Chumbi Valley which leads to the vital Siligur Corridor the chicken’s neck connecting North East India with rest of the country.

While to what extent the areas of Doklam, Charithang, Sinchulumpa and Dramana in North West Bhutan provide an advantage to China is not clear. But in general it appears that in case Bhutan seeks to appease China to move the trajectory of bilateral relations forward, it would most certainly be a cause concern in Delhi and may even be objected to.

Interestingly His Majesty The King of Bhutan Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck granted an audience to the Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) of India, Lt. General Ranbir Singh on 28 July 2016, just days before the Bhutanese delegation left for Beijing.

India has been wary of closer China Bhutan relations. There was some concern in India after the first ever bilateral held between then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Bhutan’s Prime Minister, Jigmi Y. Thinley on the side lines of the Rio Conference on Sustainable Development in June 2012. No high level contacts have been made therafter.

Given the links between progress on talks between Bhutan and China on the boundary issue including the technical survey in the West, India’s boundary dispute with China and the security of the Siliguri Corridor the discussion between the DGMO and His Majesty the King would have touched on these concerns the outcome of which remains to be seen?