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Bhutan will discuss all disputed areas with China

REPORT-4-ENG-23-07-2020-Bhutan
China’s Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou (left) visits Bhutan in 2018

A day after China repeated its claims over Eastern Bhutan, Bhutan issued a rare statement, asserting that “all disputed areas” will be discussed when the Bhutan-China boundary talks, which have not been scheduled for four years, are held again.

“The boundary between Bhutan and China is under negotiation and has not been demarcated. Twenty-four rounds of ministerial level boundary talks have been held,” a statement from the Royal Bhutanese Embassy in Delhi, made available to The Hindu, said.

 “The 25th round of boundary talks has been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic. All disputed areas will be discussed during the next round of boundary talks, which will be held as soon as it is mutually convenient,” it added.

Also Read: China lays claim to Bhutan's land with strategic eye on Doklam

Key statement

The statement is significant as Bhutan’s government rarely comments on foreign policy issues or gives details of its talks with China, that were started formally in 1984. It also indicates that despite China making new claims on Bhutan’s eastern boundary, and the Sakteng forest sanctuary on the border with Arunachal Pradesh, Bhutan is prepared to discuss these in the dialogue between them.

On Tuesday, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) had responded to questions over its assertion that Sakteng was disputed, made at the Global Environment Facility (GEF) meeting first in early June. In response, the MFA had said Bhutan’s “Middle (Northern), Eastern and Western sections of the border are disputed”.

‘Swap proposal’

Reviving reference to an earlier “swap proposal” between the Northern and Western sections of Bhutan’s border, the MFA spokesperson Wang Wenbin had added, “China has proposed a package solution to these disputes. China is opposed to making an issue of such disputes at multilateral forums and China remains in communication with the relevant parties regarding this issue”.

Also Read: China proposes 'package solution' to resolve border dispute with Bhutan

However, officials aware of the talks told The Hindu that the Chinese contention was incorrect, as the Eastern section has never been discussed by China during the talks. In 1996, for example, the Fourth King Jigme Singye Wangchuck had addressed the Bhutanese National Assembly, to report on progress in the 10th round of China-Bhutan talks, informing them that while the Northern areas had more or less been resolved, there were “essentially only three areas in the western sector which are still under negotiation.”

“These are 89 square kilometres in Doklam, 42 square kilometres in Sinchulumpa, and 138 square kilometres in Shakhatoe, a total of 269 square kilometres,” according to the translated proceedings of the 74th session of the National Assembly in Thimphu held in June-July 1996 record of the former King’s speech.

In addition, officials said China’s reference to the “package solution” is to the old proposal for the Doklam area, which Bhutan has rejected, owing to India’s concerns that it comes too close to its strategically sensitive “Siliguri corridor.” Much will depend on when the next round of China-Bhutan boundary talks are held, which were last held in 2016, and have been held up for a number of reasons, including the Doklam standoff, since then.

Indian foreign ministry has made no statement on China’s claims on areas bordering Indian territory.