India and Bhutan are two neighbours that China has not fixed its land boundary disputes with, but as relations between the two Asian giants take a nosedive, Beijing is aiming at working out its border dispute with Bhutan.
In a virtual signing ceremony on Thursday, China and Bhutan agreed on a three-step roadmap to resolve the border issue. Bhutan is one of India’s closest allies and has a “special relationship” with New Delhi. India advises Thimphu on its foreign policy and is committed to looking after the Himalayan country’s defence.
Bhutan’s foreign minister Lyonpo Tandi Dorji and China’s assistant minister for foreign affairs Wu Jianghao held virtual discussions before the memorandum of understanding was signed. The groundwork was laid during a meeting of the expert group in April this year and the signing was a mere formality.
At a time when India-China ties are on a slippery slope following last year’s military confrontation in Ladakh, where 20 Indian and an unspecified number of PLA soldiers were killed, Beijing’s move to resolve its border dispute with Bhutan is aimed at making India uneasy. Though the eye-ball to eye-ball confrontation is over, the drawback of troops to their original position has not yet been completed, over a year down the line.
Last Sunday’s conversation between the military commanders of India and China led to acrimonious statements by both sides, holding the other responsible for the current deadlock. The only silver lining is that both sides are committed to meet and talk again.
At this juncture, working out a deal with India’s closest allay is a clever move by China. More so as the final settlement of the border could involve Doklam, which is of strategic importance to India as it overlooks the Chicken’s Neck near Siliguri in North Bengal, a thin strip of landmass connecting India’s sensitive Northeastern region to the mainland. In 2017, the two giants had a stand-off when China was building a road on Bhutanese territory. The matter was resolved but not without giving Bhutan a fright. The tiny country does not want to be a part of big power rivalry in Asia. While India took a stand, the Bhutanese officially held their silence and made no comments, though the Indian army was said to be protecting Bhutanese territory.
At his weekly foreign ministry briefing on Thursday, MEA spokesman Arindam Bagchi said, “We have noted the signing of the MOU between Bhutan and China. You are aware that they have been in talks on the boundary since 1984. India has also been holding boundary talks with China. For the moment I will limit myself to this.” Clearly, he did not wish to say more on the subject and did not respond when asked if New Delhi was in the loop.
It is unlikely that New Delhi was not aware of the developments, considering that the groundwork was completed during the China-Bhutan Expert Group Meeting in April. After the meeting, the press statement issued by the Bhutanese foreign ministry was clear that the talks had progressed to a stage when the issue could be amicably resolved.
After the April meeting Bhutan’s foreign ministry said in a statement: “The EGM was held in a warm and friendly atmosphere…The EGM discussed a roadmap to expedite the Bhutan-China Boundary Talks.” The two sides agreed to continue to maintain peace and tranquillity in the border areas pending a final settlement of the boundary issue.
The press release also noted: “In a show of goodwill and friendship, and to support Bhutan’s fight against Covid-19, the Chinese Government donated Personal Protective Equipment and medical supplies.”
The Boundary Talks between Bhutan and China began in 1984. Bhutan and China signed the Guiding Principles on the Settlement of the Boundary Issues in 1988 and the Agreement on Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity along the border areas in 1998. These two agreements form the basis of a negotiated settlement of the dispute.