February 24, 2024

General Studies Paper 2

Context

  • China and Bhutan held their 25th round of boundary talks in Beijing and signed a Cooperation Agreement on the “Responsibilities and Functions of the Joint Technical Team (JTT) on the Delimitation and Demarcation of the Bhutan-China Boundary.”

Significance of the agreement

  • This advances their 3-Step Roadmap initiated in 2021 for border resolution, building on the positive momentum since their last talks in 2016. The Boundary talks between Bhutan and China were held after a gap of 7 years and indicate significant progress has been made.

Bhutan and the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) share a contiguous border to Bhutan’s north and west

  • Since 1984, Bhutan and China had held 24 rounds of talks to resolve the disputes until 2016, but the 25th round appeared to have been held up after the Doklam Standoff between Indian and Chinese armies in 2017, and then the COVID19 pandemic in 2019-21.
  • However, the two sides used the pause to hold talks at other levels in rapid succession, especially after China threatened to open a new front for a border dispute to Bhutan’s east.

The 3 Step roadmap

  • Bhutan and China don’t have diplomatic ties, as Bhutan has traditionally avoided diplomatic relations with all the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) permanent members (P5).
  • The 3-Step Roadmap aims to draw a line clearly delineating Bhutanese and Chinese territory for the first time. It involves 3 subsequent phases:
  • Agreeing to the border “on the table”
  • Visiting the sites on the ground
  • Formally demarcating the boundary

Significance for India:

  • Given the breakdown in its ties with China over the standoff at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) from 2020 post-Galwan Valley clash, any hint of closer ties between China and one of its closest neighbours is a cause for worry for India.
  • More specifically, New Delhi is watching the demarcation discussions over Doklam, as amongst the proposals China has placed on the table is an agreement to “swap” areas in Doklam under Bhutanese control with areas in Jakarlung and Pasamlung which China claims.
  • Doklam trijunction cuts very close to India’s Siliguri corridor, a narrow area that connects the North Eastern States to the rest of India. India would not like to see China gain access to any area closer to it.
  • Since the Doklam standoff in 2017, China has doubled down on its control of the Doklam plateau, and according to a recent Pentagon report, has continued to build “underground storage facilities, new roads, and new villages in disputed areas in neighbouring Bhutan,” erasing many of the strategic gains that New Delhi had hoped for after China agreed to step back from the standoff point in 2017.
  • Finally, India’s worry is over China’s demand for full diplomatic relations with Bhutan, and opening an Embassy in Thimphu. Given India’s challenges with Chinese projects and funding in other neighbouring countries including Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, any Chinese presence in a small country like Bhutan would be problematic.

Conclusion

  • However, Bhutan’s leadership has thus far said that all decisions would consider India’s interests and that it has always consulted India on issues of concern
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