President Xi Jinping’s strategy to expand its territorial dispute with Bhutan to needle India appears to have brought the tiny kingdom nestled in the Himalayas closer to New Delhi. Thimphu, which had last found itself caught in the crossfire between India and China during the 2017 Doklam standoff appeared to have had second thoughts about its proximity to India vis-a-vis China, people familiar with the developments told Hindustan Times.
There was lately, an emerging view in Bhutan, wedged geographically between India and China, that the kingdom should perhaps balance its ties with its two neighbours so that Thimphu isn’t squeezed between the giants again. “It was never spelt out in black and white but this view was gaining ground over the last two-three years,” people in New Delhi and Thimphu said.
But there has been a change in Thimpu’s approach over the last one month after Beijing stunned Bhutan at the June meeting of the US-based multinational fund, Global Environment Facility, when Thimphu was seeking funds for the Sakteng wildlife sanctuary. The Chinese representative objected, claiming that there was a dispute between China and Bhutan over part of the sanctuary spread across 650 sq km.
The Chinese move to make new territorial claims in Bhutan has convinced Thimpu that it should not hang to any hopes that its northern neighbour, 250 times bigger, would be fair. That if it cedes any ground to appease Beijing, it would only end up fueling its territorial ambitions, the people mentioned above said.
Thimphu formally protested the China claim, issuing a demarche to the Chinese mission in Delhi. Bhutan and Beijing use their missions in Delhi to communicate. It also issued a rare statement earlier this month, underlining that disputes relating to the undemarcated border would be discussed at the next round of border talks.
Bhutan and China have held 24 rounds of talks since 1984 to settle their border issue, the last in 2016. Beijing has been pressuring Bhutan to accept a package deal for nearly 20 years that would let it take over Bhutanese territory of Doklam, Sinchulung, Dramana, and Shakhatoe spread across 269 sq km in the western sector. In exchange, China would give up its claim over Bhutan’s Pasamlung and Jakarlung valleys in the north.
China’s claim over the nature preserve spread across 650 sq km in eastern Bhutan’s Trashigang district almost doubles the area of the disputed territories between the two countries from the existing 764 sq km.
Bhutan is yet to decide on an Indian proposal to build a road through the sanctuary that would sharply reduce the 450 km long distance between Guwahati and Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh by one-third. New Delhi is expected to take up the proposal with Thimphu as part of India’s hard push to border infrastructure.