China repeats claim on Bhutan’s east

China repeats claim on Bhutan’s east

Pushes ‘package solution’ for a border deal

China said that it has offered Bhutan a “package solution” to its boundary dispute, reviving a reference to its 1996 proposal for a territory swap to give Bhutan the disputed areas in its north in exchange for the disputed western areas, including Doklam. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) also repeated its claim on Bhutan’s eastern boundary at Sakteng, which experts warn, maybe a new pressure tactic by Beijing to push Thimphu into concluding a boundary deal.

“The boundary between China and Bhutan is yet to be demarcated, and the middle, eastern and western sections of the border are disputed. China has proposed a package solution to these disputes,” said Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Wang Wenbin on Tuesday, when asked about the Sakteng claim. During a meeting of the UNDP-led Global Environment Facility on June 2-3 this year, the Chinese representative had tried, unsuccessfully, to stop the funding for Bhutan’s Sakteng forest sanctuary, claiming the area was disputed. Bhutan, through the Indian delegate who represented them, had rejected the claim, and was granted the funding.

Never in contention

Since 1984, when China and Bhutan began talks, the areas of dispute have only included Pasamlung and Jakarlung valleys to the north (what China calls middle) area, and Doklam and other pasturelands to the west. The eastern boundary of Bhutan, which borders Arunachal Pradesh, has never been in contention.

“What is important to note is that according to Bhutan, the Sakteng area in the east was never brought up in the several rounds of border talks with China. So this is a new claim and a moving of the goalposts,” former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran told The Hindu.

After the 11th round of talks in 1996, Bhutan’s 4th King Jigme Singye Wangchuck (the present King’s father) had informed the Bhutanese National Assembly that China “wanted to exchange the valleys to the north, with an area of 495 square kilometres, with the pasture land to the west, totalling 269 square kilometres.” The deal would have benefited Bhutan by giving it the larger chunk of land, and resolving its tensions with China, but was a big worry for India, as the Doklam swap would give the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) access to the strategically sensitive “chicken neck” of the Siliguri corridor. While the Chinese MFA did not specify details of the “package solution” it has offered, it is likely to be referring to the same deal.

‘Pressuring Bhutan’

“As far as I am aware, this is first time that China may have referred to the package proposal it had offered some years back in the Bhutan-China border talks. Bhutan did not accept this package,” Mr. Saran said. “The aim may be to pressure Bhutan into concluding a deal quickly on terms on offer, otherwise the claims may keep increasing,” he added, likening the Chinese offer to Bhutan with a similar offer made to India on Arunachal Pradesh, which subsequently expanded to include a Chinese claim on Tawang in 1985.

Neither the Bhutanese MFA nor the Ministry of External Affairs reacted to the Chinese statement on Tuesday. When asked last month about Bhutan’s reaction, an official had said that any new claims would be taken up in due course during the next round of Bhutan-China talks that have been suspended since the 90-day stand-off between the Indian Army and the PLA at Doklam in 2017.

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