Why China’s Claims in Eastern Bhutan Are A Way To Pressurise India

Akshita Jain
·5-min read
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Bhutan's Prime Minister Lotay Tshering in New Delhi on December 28, 2018.  (Photo: PRAKASH SINGH via Getty Images)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Bhutan's Prime Minister Lotay Tshering in New Delhi on December 28, 2018. (Photo: PRAKASH SINGH via Getty Images)

Earlier this week, the US took note of China’s claims of a boundary dispute with Bhutan in the eastern sector, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rebuking Beijing for “bullying”.

“There aren’t many neighbours that could satisfactorily say that they know where their sovereignty ends and that the Chinese Communist Party will respect that sovereignty. That’s certainly true now for the people of Bhutan as well,” Pompeo said in a press briefing.

His remarks came after China last month objected to a grant request for Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary in Bhutan’s Trashigang district at a meeting of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and claimed that the sanctuary was located in a “disputed area”.

Bhutan rejected China’s claims and said the area has never come up during boundary talks between the two countries.

India has been closely watching the developments, Nayanima Basu wrote for The Print citing sources, though it does not intend to directly interfere in the matter.

“From the mountain ranges of the Himalayas to the waters of Vietnam’s Exclusive Zone, to the Senkaku Islands, and beyond, Beijing has a pattern of instigating territorial disputes. The world shouldn’t allow this bullying to take place, nor should it permit it to continue,” Pompeo said about China filing a boundary dispute with Bhutan at the meeting of the GEF.

China reiterated its claim this week through its Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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Pompeo added that the US will start a dialogue with the European Union soon on how to collectively respond to this challenge from the Chinese Communist Party.

Medha Bisht, assistant professor at South Asian University, told HuffPost India that Washington would definitely try to use this situation to advance its own interests vis-a-vis China. “American interest in the region is not about India and US or Bhutan and US, as much as it is about China and US.”

However, she said that both India and Bhutan would prefer to resolve their issues with China bilaterally.

What China claims

After its claims at the GEF, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said this week that there have been disputes in three sectors. “The boundary between China and Bhutan has never been delimited. There have been disputes over the eastern, central and western sectors for a long time,” The Hindu quoted the Chinese ministry as saying.

Bhutan had rejected China’s claims at the GEF and said that Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary is an integral and sovereign territory of Bhutan, according to India Today.

In a statement sent to HuffPost India, the Royal Bhutanese Embassy in India said, “The boundary between Bhutan and China is under negotiation and has not been demarcated. 24 rounds of ministerial level boundary talks have been held. The 25th round of boundary talks has been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.”

All disputed areas, it added, will be discussed during the next round of boundary talks, which will be held as when it is mutually convenient.

The Hindu report said there has been no mention of eastern Bhutan, or Trashigang district, in previous rounds of boundary negotiations between the two countries.

Bisht pointed out that the Trashigang district never came up in boundary talks before because the focus of boundary negotiations between China and Bhutan had been in the North-Western sector. “This is not to say that disputed claims were not there in the Eastern sector.”

She said that China perhaps let it lie dormant because of the normalisation of Bhutan-China relations after 1998, when both countries for the first time signed a peace agreement promising to ‘Maintain Peace and Tranquility on the Bhutan-China Border Areas.’

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The India factor

China’s present claim, Bisht added, might be seen as part of its South Asia strategy and as a tactic to pressurise India because the territory gives China a strategic advantage over India.

Trashigang district in Eastern Bhutan is across the border from Arunachal Pradesh.

Bisht said that China’s claim reifies the Indian position taken in 2017 that the Bhutan-China border dispute is of strategic concern to India. “It can be interpreted to mean that the China-Bhutan border dispute is no longer a bilateral issue between China and Bhutan but concerns India.”

In 2017, India and China were engaged in a two-month long standoff in the Doklam area, which was resolved after both sides agreed to withdraw its troops. The standoff began when the Chinese side tried to construct a road in the area and India sought to desist Beijing from changing the status quo.

Sangeeta Thapliyal, Professor of Inner Asian Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University had also told HuffPost India last week that China’s claim is the latest example of its strategy to pressurise Bhutan — which has close relations with India — and challenge India’s relations with it as both the countries are treaty-bound to work closely with each other on issues of national interests.

This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.