Royal Embassy of Bhutan issued a statement on the boundary issue said with China Boundary between Bhutan-China is under negotiation and has not been demarcated. This comes amid reports of Chinese claims over Sakteng wildlife sanctuary, a Bhutanese territory which borders Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. On 4 July, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) issued a statement: “The boundary between China and Bhutan has never been delimited. There have been disputes over the eastern, central and western sectors for a long time.”

Royal Bhutanese Embassy in New Delhi clarified that 24 rounds of ministerial-level boundary talks held, 25th round delayed due to Covid-19 and all disputed areas to be discussed in next round, to be held as soon as mutually convenient. 

China, under fire for its hideous act on Covid-19 which resulted into an outbreak worldwide and the massive deaths across the world, has resorted to its vicious tactics of reopening border issues with peaceful neighbors. Located in the easternmost part of the Kingdom, Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary spans an area of 650 sq. km and is a protected area. The sanctuary is the wonder of biodiversity and a repository of wide diversity of Himalayan terrestrial ecosystems, namely alpine meadow and temperate forest. So much so, it is home to some of rarest and almost extinct species of red pandas, Himalayan black bear, barking deer, Himalayan red fox, the hoary-bellied Himalayan squirrel and even the mythical Yeti (or the “Abominable Snowman”). 

Again, a premeditated and planned, China marked the  58th meeting of the Global Environment Facility Council as an opportunity to raise border issue. While the scope of meeting was clearly defined on the crucial aspect of funding to the critical environment projects, China tried to “oppose” funding to a project for the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary situated in Bhutan saying that it was “disputed” territory.

Bhutan has firmly rejected such unwarranted claims by China and sent a strong note to the Beijing as: “Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary is an integral and sovereign territory of Bhutan.”

During the GEF Council meeting, Chinese Council member Zhongjing Wang, Deputy Director, International Economic and Financial Cooperation Department, China raised objection and opposed the project. Bhutan did not have a direct representative and was represented by an Indian IAS officer Aparna Subramani from the World Bank in-charge of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Sri Lanka. 

Though the project fund for the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary was sanctioned, the objections were added in the highlights as ‘Agenda Item 10 Summary of the Chair’.  

The Council Member for the China constituency remarked: “In light of the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary in the project ID 10561 is located in the China-Bhutan disputed areas which is on the agenda of China-Bhutan boundary talk, China opposes and does not join the Council decision on this project.”

The Council Member for the Constituency of India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives and Sri Lanka put forth the views of Bhutan as follows: “Bhutan totally rejects the claim made by the Council Member of China. Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary is an integral and sovereign territory of Bhutan and at no point during the boundary discussions between Bhutan and China has it featured as a disputed area.”

Bhutan and China have a border dispute centered around and limited to three areas– two in North-Central Bhutan — Jakarlung and Pasamlung areas — and one in West Bhutan- Doklam which was the area of confrontation in 2017 with China. The total border dispute involves 764 square kilometers (sq km) of territory. Beijing claims 495 sq km of territory in the Jakurlung and Pasamlung Valleys in north-central Bhutan and another 269 sq km in western Bhutan — the Doklam Plateau. Interestingly, Sakteng has never been part of any of the three disputed areas and never discussed in any international forum. Pattern is similar to what China has been doing at the Line of actual Control (LAC) in the Union territory of Ladakh by encroaching upon the uncontested area of dispute and forcing India to engage in military confrontation. 

Nevertheless, without the diplomatic ties, Bhutan has engaged with China and held 24 rounds of border talks. But since the Doklam standoff with China in 2017, talks have been stalled. 

Why Bhutan does not have diplomatic relations with China?

Bhutan does not have a diplomatic ties with China. China and Bhutan became neighbors only after the Chinese annexation of Tibet in 1951. Until then, it was Tibet and Bhutan as immediate neighbors which had historical linkages and great cultural ties. It was only in 18th century, Chinese ruler– Qing dynasty- started interacting with Bhutan, began to claim territories of Bhutan beyond Tibet. Later, In all absurdity, once Mao Zedong took over, he went a step further, publishing maps of China where he marked such well established nations – Nepal & Bhutan within China. Mao’s wishful thinking later resulted in ugly plan calling it- “the correct boundaries of China”. 

It is for the historical reason the kingdom of Bhutan in its approach to building peace and refrain from such aggression in future decided to turn away from China. Bhutan then signed the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation signed in 1949 with India which became the basic framework of India- Bhutan bilateral relations. Treaty was revised in February 2007 and celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of formal diplomatic relations in 2018. And the revised treaty of 2007 frees Bhutan of any such ‘advice’ and ‘guidance’ on foreign policy matters and rather calls for mutually cooperation on the national security.

India-Bhutan bilateral relations stood the test of times during the Doklam crisis between India and China in 2017, when Bhutan fully supported India’s stand, refusing to accept an offer of $10 billion from China as economic assistance. Bhutan also rejected the diplomatic establishment with China, despite the calls for the ‘new beginning’ with China.

Despite few moments of apprehensions during the course of history, Bhutan never looked back since then. India is Bhutan’s largest trading partner and total bilateral trade between the two countries peaked at USD 1.2 billion in 2018. It got further boost when a Ground Station built by the India Space Research Organisation (ISRO) was established, leading Bhutan into the world of Satellite & Communications. India is the most popular educational destination for Bhutanese students -almost 4000 Bhutanese students are enrolled in Indian Universities at any time, many of whom are also provided scholarship by Indian government.

Linking Bhutan over the border dispute is another foolhardy act of Chinese leadership under the command of Xi Jinping. World has already united against such naked expansionism much visible in the South China Sea from the Paracels to the Spratly Islands. ASEAN leaders have already up in arms against China’s belligerent ways. Mounting over the growing concern, The US Navy is deploying its two nuclear-powered aircraft carriers – USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan – to conduct exercises in the South China Sea. China claims 90% of the South China Sea, a world’s major trade route where $3 trillion of shipments pass through. And, Japanese PM Shinzo Abe is set to cancel a state visit by Xi Jinping after China ships kept coming closer to the Senkaku Islands, in East China Sea which is under Japan.

 As Tenzing Lamsang Editor of the Bhutanese newspaper, The Bhutanese, who is also the President of Media Association of Bhutan puts it quintessentially non conformist Bhutanese style: “You [China] have an image problem & you want to rise smoothly to the top but many major powers are aligning against you for a host of reasons. The last thing you should do is pick on the smallest & most peaceful neighbor in the neighborhood & claim a chunk of its land with no basis.”

So unlike the doklam standoff where world had yet to see the China as toady, Bhutan must not be worried over the maddening territorial claims by China over Sakteng. Bhutan is capable and rightly on the side of peace and gross happiness bereft of geopolitical tussles. India will stand by. 

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