Bhutan and China have agreed to set up the next round of much-delayed boundary talks between them “as soon as possible” and discussed a roadmap for expediting the boundary resolution, a joint release of the 10th Expert Group Meeting (EGM) on the Bhutan-China Boundary held in Kunming announced on Friday. The upcoming talks, the 25th round of the boundary talks mechanism, will be the first since the Doklam standoff in 2017, and the first since China made new claims on Bhutan’s eastern boundary bordering Arunachal Pradesh in June 2020.
“The EGM was held in a warm and friendly atmosphere, and held in-depth and fruitful discussions on the boundary issue in keeping with the close ties of friendship and cooperation between Bhutan and China,” a joint statement issued in Kunming at the end of talks between senior officials from Arpil 6-9 said.
“The two sides agreed to continue to maintain peace and tranquility in the border areas pending a final settlement of the boundary issue,” it added, referring to the annual boundary talk mechanism that began in 1984, and was followed by two agreements on the maintenance of peace and tranquillity along the border areas in 1988 and 1998.
Since then 24 rounds of talks have been held, but there have been no talks scheduled since 2016, ostensibly due to tensions over the Doklam standoff between India and China over PLA transgressions in Bhutanese territory, and more recently due to the Coronavirus pandemic. The previous ninth round of the ECG was also held prior to the Doklam standoff, in April 2017 in Beijing.
The talks have thus far focused on two areas of dispute: Pasamlung and Jakarlung valleys to the North of Bhutan and Doklam to the West of Bhutan, along the trijunction with India. However, at a UN environmental meeting in June 2020, China raised an objection to a grant for Bhutan’s Sakteng Sanctuary to the East frontier as well, saying that it was disputed as well.
In a rare public statement on the issue, the Bhutanese Embassy in Delhi, which handles relations with a number of countries including China, had said that “all disputed areas” would be discussed in the next round of boundary talks.
The eight member Bhutanese delegation for the ECG this week, led by Letho Tobdhen Tangbi, Secretary of the International Boundaries in Bhutan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), which included Bhutanese Ambassador to India Major General Vetsop Namgyel, also thanked the Chinese delegation led by Hong Liang, Director General of the Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs of the Chinese MFA for the donation of medical supplies including PPE kits.
In a separate statement issued by Beijing on the handover of epidemic prevention materials to Bhutan, Hong Liang, Director General of the Foreign Ministry’s Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs, described China and Bhutan “as friendly neighbours linked by mountains and rivers”.
He said both sides had always helped each other and overcome difficulties together, and the handover of materials by China “embodies the sincere friendship and good wishes of the Chinese people to the Bhutanese people”.