All eyes on border talks between Bhutan, China as King begins India visit

All eyes on border talks between Bhutan, China as King begins India visit

 Bhutan PM Lotay Tshering had caused a storm with his comments on discussing the Doklam trijunction dispute ‘trilaterally’, with Bhutan, India and China as ‘equal’ interlocutors

As Bhutan’s fifth King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck arrives in Delhi on Monday afternoon at the invitation of President Droupadi Murmu, all eyes will be on his talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday, and any possible discussions on the progress in Bhutan-China boundary talks.

While the Bhutanese King last met Mr. Modi in September last year, when he stopped over in Delhi on his way to attend British Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral, this is the first such high-level meeting between the two leaders since Bhutan and China’s talks on their boundary made rapid progress. Mr. Modi and Bhutan’s PM Lotay Tshering have spoken often on the phone, but last met for bilateral talks in Thimphu in August 2020.

India wary

In October 2021, Bhutan and China signed a Memorandum of Understanding for a “3-step Roadmap” to expedite border resolution talks. The discusssion centre on two valleys to Bhutan’s north and the Doklam area to the west of Bhutan, close to the trijunction with India, which was the site of a standoff between Indian and Chinese forces in 2017. India has been particularly watchful of any possibility of a “swap agreement” between the two countries that could affect its security at the trijunction.

In January 2023, Bhutan and China held talks in Kunming, and reached a “positive consensus” on how to move forward with the talks. Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra arrived in Thimphu three days after the Kunming talks for bilateral discussions, where he also called on the present King’s father, the fourth King Jigme Singye Wangchuck.

Controversial comments

While on a visit to Europe last week, Dr. Tshering told a Belgian newspaper that he hopes to complete boundary demarcation talks on disputed areas in the next “one or two more meetings” and that a visit by a Chinese “technical team” is expected shortly in Bhutan. The Bhutanese PM’s comments on discussing the Doklam trijunction dispute “trilaterally”, with Bhutan, India and China as “equal” interlocutors, set off a storm in Delhi, including with the opposition Congress party, which said that “Bhutan and India’s so-far unshakeable relationship is facing a challenge from an aggressive China”.

However, Dr. Tshering subsequently clarified his comments on Saturday, telling The Bhutanese newspaper that he had said “nothing new and there is no change in position”.

Both Indian and Bhutanese officials declined to comment on whether King Jigme Khesar Wangchuck would speak to PM Modi about the latest developments in talks.

Meeting PM, EAM

In a statement that was timed with the Bhutan government’s announcement of the King’s visit, the Ministry of External Affairs said that the visit was part of the “long standing tradition” of high-level exchanges between both countries, and that the leaders would “review the entire gamut of bilateral cooperation and to further advance the close bilateral partnership, including economic and development cooperation.” However, neither Thimphu nor New Delhi referred to any specific agreements expected to be announced during the visit.

The Bhutanese King, who will also be accompanied by Bhutanese Foreign and External Trade Minister Tandi Dorji, will receive External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar on Monday evening. He is expected to hold talks with Mr. Modi on Tuesday morning at the Prime Minister’s residence, meet with Ms. Murmu on Tuesday evening, and then leave early morning on Wednesday. Officials said that no public events were expected, and the leaders are unlikely to make any press statements.

Wide-ranging support

In addition, sources said that the leaders were expected to discuss India’s support to Bhutan for its five year plans. At present, the Indian government’s assistance towards Bhutan’s 12th five year plan (2018-23) amounts to ₹4,500 crore in project assistance, small development projects, and direct budgetary support.

India supports Bhutan’s hydropower project construction and is a buyer of Bhutanese energy, which could soon find its way over the grid to Bangladesh as well. In November 2021, India and Bhutan opened seven new trade routes between them, and India is also assisting Bhutan with satellite construction and space research.

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