Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Bhutanese King To Arrive In India On Monday Amid Concerns Over Bhutan-China Boundary Issue

Bhutanese King To Arrive In India On Monday Amid Concerns Over Bhutan-China Boundary Issue

King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck of Bhutan will meet President Droupadi Murmu and Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his three-day visit.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and King of Bhutan in 2017.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and King of Bhutan in 2017. Twitter/Narendra Modi

King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck of Bhutan will on Monday arrive on a three-day visit to India. He will hold talks with President Droupadi Murmu and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. 

Wangchuck will be accompanied by Bhutanese Minister of Foreign Affairs and External Trade Tandi Dorji and senior officials, said the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) announcing the visit.

The MEA said, "At the invitation of the President of India Droupadi Murmu, the King of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck will be on an official visit to India from April 3 to 5.

The MEA said, "India and Bhutan enjoy unique ties of friendship and cooperation, which are characterized by understanding and mutual trust...The visit would provide an opportunity to both the sides to review the entire gamut of bilateral cooperation and to further advance the close bilateral partnership, including economic and development cooperation."

The MEA further said Wangchuck's visit is in keeping with the long standing tradition of regular high-level exchanges between the two countries.

The King of Bhutan is visiting India at a time when concerns have risen over the comments of his Prime Minister Lotay Tshering over Bhutan-China boundary issue. In a recent interview, Tshering said China is an equal stakeholder in the boundary issue and denied any encroachment, leading to concerns that Bhutan might be ready to cede territory to China in a settlement, according to reports.

What did Bhutan's PM say?

In an interview with Belgian Daily La Libre, Bhutanese Prime Minister Lotay Tshering said China is an equal stakeholder in the boundary issue.

Tshering also denied that China has encroached any territory of Bhutan despite years of reports saying that China has constructed villages inside Bhutan. 

NDTV quoted Tshering as saying, "It is not up to Bhutan alone to solve the problem. There are three of us. There is no big or small country, there are three equal countries, each counting for a third...We are ready. As soon as the other two parties are ready too, we can discuss."

Tshering also "categorically" denied any Chinese settlement on Bhutanese land. 

He reportedly said, "A lot of information is circulating in the media about Chinese facilities in Bhutan. We are not making a [big] deal about them because they are not in Bhutan. We have said it categorically, there is no intrusion as mentioned in the media. This is an international border and we know exactly what belongs to us."

What are the concerns?

Following Bhutanese Prime Minister Lotay Tshering's interview, reports in India surfaced saying that Bhutan might be willing to cede territory to China.

In 2021, Foreign Policy reported, citing Chinese records and sattelite imagery, that China has constructed villages inside Bhutanese territory. The objective was, as per FP, to force Bhutan to cede territory to China to have an upper hand in contest with India in the region.

The FP reported, "This new construction is part of a major drive by Chinese President Xi Jinping since 2017 to fortify the Tibetan borderlands, a dramatic escalation in China’s long-running efforts to outmaneuver India and its neighbors along their Himalayan frontiers. In this case, China doesn’t need the land it is settling in Bhutan: Its aim is to force the Bhutanese government to cede territory that China wants elsewhere in Bhutan to give Beijing a military advantage in its struggle with New Delhi."

In 2021, the FP reported the following construction by China "in what it says are parts of Lhodrak in the TAR [Tibet Autonomous Region] but which in fact are in the far north of Bhutan":

  • Three new villages
  • 66 miles of new roads
  • A small hydropower station
  • Two Communist Party administrative centers
  • A communications base
  • A disaster relief warehouse
  • Five military or police outposts, 
  • A site believed to be a major signals tower
  • A satellite receiving station
  • A military base
  • Up to six security sites and outposts

However, Tshering has denied that this construction has taken place. Indian experts said this could signal a shift towards a settlement. 

"The Bhutanese PM's statement suggests that to save face, Bhutan is claiming that the territories China has stealthily occupied are not Bhutanese areas. But this could encourage further Chinese salami slicing of Bhutanese territories," said strategic affairs expert Dr. Brahma Chellaney to NDTV.

The Financial Express noted, "PM Lotay Tshering’s interview raised concerns for India amid China-Bhutan talks over the status of the Doklam trijunction. Bhutan and China are engaged in a series of talks to resolve the border dispute. The interview hints at the settlement between them. However, it raises questions about whether Bhutan agreed to a settlement of the disputed Bhutanese territory to the north while ceding parts of the Doklam plateau. In such a case, it will pose a very difficult situation for India."

Concerns in India are primarily over the Doklam Plateau which is at the trijunction of India, Bhutan, and China. In 2017, Chinese military had began building a road in the area, which was dealt with an Indian military response and led to a months-long stand-off. The region is very critical for Indian interests as domination of the region would bring China to Indian doorstep — literally. The area is right next to the 'Chicken's Neck' corridor —a 22 km wide corridor— that connects the Northeast India to the rest of India.

"Remember that in the summer of 2017, Indian troops moved into the Doklam plateau to prevent the Chinese from extending a road it was constructing toward an adjoining hill feature called the Jhampheri ridge. If the Chinese had been able to build their road, they would have been within kissing distance of Chicken’s Neck — the Siliguri Corridor — that connects the Northeast and the Indian mainland," noted Jyoti Malhotra in an article for The Print.

No change in stance, said nothing new: Bhutanese PM

Following reports in India over his comments, Bhutanese Prime Minister Lotay Tshering said he did not say anything new and there was no change in Bhutan's stance on the subject.

The Bhutanese newspaper reported "Indian media outlets misrepresented his interview to a Belgian newspaper and blew it out of proportion".

"I have said nothing new and there is no change in position," said Tshering to The Bhutanese.

Further, The Bhutanese noted, "The PM’s statement comes after a slew of prominent Indian media outlets in the electronic, print and digital space misunderstood, and then went on to misrepresent the PM’s interview alleging that Bhutan had changed its position on Doklam in the talks and that China was being given a new role. They also alleged that this is not in India’s interest."

(With PTI inputs)