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China and Bhutan reach deal on border talks ‘in test for India’

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China and Bhutan have agreed to expedite border talks. Photo: Shutterstock

China has signed an agreement with Bhutan to speed up talks on their disputed border, in an apparent effort to put pressure on India over their unresolved Himalayan frontiers.

In an online ceremony on Thursday, China and Bhutan signed a memorandum of understanding on a “three-step road map” for expediting the Bhutan-China boundary negotiations, Chinese state news agency Xinhua reported.

Chinese assistant foreign minister Wu Jianghao said the document would speed up the negotiations between the two countries and advance the process of establishing diplomatic relations.

Bhutan’s foreign ministry said the agreement would give fresh impetus to the boundary talks and bring them to a “successful conclusion that is acceptable to both sides”.

Neither country gave details of the deal.

Bhutan’s border with China is over 400km (250 miles) long and Bhutan is the only one of China’s neighbours with which it does not have diplomatic ties.

Boundary talks began in 1984 and the two countries have held more than two dozen rounds of negotiations since then.

The agreement comes four years after Indian and Chinese troops faced off for 73 days on the Doklam Plateau in an area claimed by both China and Bhutan.

India supported the Bhutanese claim and has also been embroiled in its own border stand-off with China.

However, the latest efforts to resolve the dispute between the two Asian giants broke down on Sunday, with China accusing India of making “unreasonable demands” and India accusing China of changing the status quo.

Qian Feng, director of research at Tsinghua University’s National Strategy Institute, said the three-step agreement with Bhutan might include setting up a framework first, confirming the specific disputes with an exchange of maps, and then a resolution stage.

Qian said the agreement was timed to hit back at India and other countries that had accused China of taking provocative action on the border.

“It sent a clear signal to India that China’s friendly policy towards its neighbours has not changed,” he said.

“It can be said to be a counterattack against India, including the United States and other Western countries that accused Beijing of aggression on the border issues.”

Lin Minwang, a professor and assistant dean at the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University, said Bhutan was trying to test India’s reaction and show its desire to settle boundary rows.

“The border disputes between China and Bhutan are easy to resolve, as long as India does not interfere,” Lin said.

“The road map indicates that Bhutan intends to show India that the border issue is urgent to solve. Bhutan will decide how far it will go after checking India’s reaction.”

He said China also wanted to put pressure on India, with the last round of India-China military talks doing little to ease tensions.

“China wants to stimulate India to enter border negotiations with China,” Lin said.

Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesman Arindam Bagchi said New Delhi had noted the signing of the agreement and “India has similarly been holding boundary negotiations with China”.