For the third time since early June, China on Tuesday repeated its claim that Bhutan’s eastern boundary was a “disputed” area with Bhutan. Its first claim was at a UNDP-led Global Environment Facility conference on June 2-3, when the Chinese representative tried to stop funding for the Sakteng forest reserve in Bhutan’s eastern district of Trashigang, which abuts Arunachal Pradesh’s Tawang district. The claim was surprising for several reasons: China has not objected earlier to funding provided to the sanctuary at the GEF. Second, the Trashigang area does not share a boundary with China. Finally, whatever the origins of the claim, Chinese officials have not raised the eastern boundary in 24 rounds of talks with Bhutan, that began in 1984. Thus far, talks have been only about the Pasamlung and Jakarlung valleys in Bhutan’s north, and Doklam and other pasturelands to the west, that come up to the trijunction point with India. On Wednesday, China referred to a “package solution” for the dispute, that is believed to refer to an offer made in the 1990s to swap the northern and western areas, something Bhutan rejected given India’s concerns. Bhutan’s response at the start was to reject China’s claim at the GEF, and it was able to secure the funding. Subsequently the Bhutanese Embassy in Delhi served a démarche to the Chinese Embassy (Bhutan does not have diplomatic relations with China), but the Chinese MFA repeated the claim in early July, and then again this week. Bhutan has now appeared to take a sober view of China’s claims by saying that all disputes would be taken up in the next round of China-Bhutan talks . Talks — the last round was in 2016 — have been put off due to the Doklam stand-off in 2017, elections in 2018, and the pandemic this year.
Despite Beijing’s repeated statements on the boundary issue, both Thimphu and New Delhi have chosen not to react in a rash manner. For Bhutan, the Chinese claim may be seen as a pressure tactic: an attempt to hurry the scheduling of the next meeting, or to gain leverage in the boundary talks. For India, that is already dealing with Chinese aggression across the Line of Actual Control, the Sakteng claim could be a diversionary tactic, or one aimed at driving a wedge between India and Bhutan. More significantly, by claiming Bhutan’s eastern boundary, China is attempting to double down on its claims over Arunachal Pradesh, neither of which it has lien on or control of. The repetition of its “package” offer is worrying as it implies that Beijing is not giving up its push for the Doklam plateau, where it has consolidated its military infrastructure and would like to inch towards India’s Chumbi valley, a strategically sensitive location. No matter what Beijing’s designs are behind its new claims in Bhutan, New Delhi and Thimphu must stay the course, with the close cooperation and complete understanding they have shared for decades, in order to respond to them purposively.