Boundaries could be demarcated within next one or two meetings: Bhutan PM on talks with Ch...

Boundaries could be demarcated within next one or two meetings: Bhutan PM on talks with China

Bhutanese Prime Minister Lotay Tshering’s interview to a Belgian newspaper raises speculation on a deal around Doklam

Bhutan hopes to complete the demarcation of territories with China within “one or two meetings”, said Bhutanese Prime Minister Lotay Tshering, indicating a resolution of boundary issues with Beijing could be expected soon. In an interview he gave to a Belgian newspaper during a recent visit to Brussels, Dr. Tshering also said that Bhutan is watching whether India and China could resolve their boundary issues as he hoped to discuss the issue over the Doklam trijunction, where the soldiers of the Indian Army and China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) faced off in 2017, “trilaterally”. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) declined to comment on Tuesday on Dr. Tshering’s comments.

“We do not encounter major border problems with China, but certain territories are not yet demarcated. We still have to discuss it and draw a line,” Dr. Tshering told Belgian newspaper La Libre in an interview published this week, according to a translation from the French.

“[Earlier this year], a Bhutanese delegation visited China and we are now awaiting the arrival in Bhutan of a Chinese technical team. After one or two more meetings, we will probably be able to draw a line,” Dr. Tshering said, referring to the last round of talks in January 2023 in Kunming, adding that Bhutan and China have “come to understand each other”. Shortly after the China-Bhutan talks in Kunming, Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra had visited Thimphu, and is understood to have received a briefing on the progress in talks.

When asked about reports that China has already built a number of villages on land claimed by Bhutan, Dr. Tshering dismissed them. “There is a lot of information circulating in the media about Chinese installations in Bhutan. We don’t make a deal of it because it’s not in Bhutan. We said categorically, there is no intrusion as mentioned in the media. This is an international border and we know exactly what belongs to us,” he said, when asked particularly about prominent British author and expert on Tibet, Professor Robert Barnett’s contention that China continues to “salami slice” Bhutanese territory to the north, in two areas that are also being discussed as part of the China-Bhutan talks — the Pasamlung and the Jakarlung valley.

The interview, which raised speculation that the flurry of China-Bhutan talks over the past few months, including one round of talks in Kunming in January this year, and an upcoming round in Thimphu, could lead to a settlement on Doklam unfavourable to India, in exchange for a settlement of the disputed Bhutanese territory to the north. In diplomatic conversations, New Delhi has always expressed security concerns about the trijunction’s proximity to the “chicken’s neck” point or the Siliguri corridor connecting Sikkim and West Bengal to the northeastern region.

In an interview to The Hindu in July 2022, Bhutanese Foreign Minister Tandi Dorji had made it clear that the Doklam tri-junction was not up for discussion with China bilaterally, but will be held when agreed to trilaterally.

However, experts have held that if Bhutan cedes any part of the Doklam region in talks with China as part of a “package deal” for a border settlement, that would constrain India’s room for manoeuvre in the area. “If China gets all or part of what it has been demanding from Bhutan, it will have been rewarded for breaching international law – raising doubts about China’s attitude to treaties, its treatment of small neighbours, & the security architecture of the Himalayan region,” Professor Barnett, who taught at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), wrote in a tweet referencing the interview.

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