Bhutan and China will hold the 25th round of their boundary talks in Thimphu next month. The teams will be led by Bhutanese Foreign Minister Lyonpo Damcho Dorji and Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou. The boundary talks were cancelled last year in the wake of the Doklam crisis, when Indian and Chinese troops faced off in the remote Himalayan plateau for 73 days in territory claimed by both Bhutan and China. The standoff ended in August with troops from both sides withdrawing to their previous positions and China removing road-building equipment.
The fact that the Bhutan-China talks will be held in March, within weeks of the visit of India’s top security and foreign policy triumvirate — National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale and Army chief General Bipin Rawat — indicates that Delhi is on board Thimphu’s decision to take forward the conversation with Beijing.
During their visit, the Indian team met His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, his father and former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay and other senior ministers and officials.
Sources said it was “better to remain engaged” with China, than demonstrate otherwise by shutting down dialogue, especially since India had made its strategic point at Doklam by holding ground.
The close relationship between Delhi and Bhutan — and it will be cemented further during the 50th anniversary of establishment of diplomatic relations with a second visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Thimphu — means that both countries are fully engaged on the matter.
In the Bhutanese system, King Jigme Wangchuck retains control of the country’s foreign and security policies, while his father remains a key advisor. The meetings between the Indian team and Bhutan’s royals is more than significant in this regard.
But the fact remains that despite Doklam, the Chinese are keen to resolve the boundary issue with Bhutan, and will press Thimphu again during their talks. They will likely reiterate their willingness to “do a deal” on exchanging territory with Bhutan — territory in the southern Doklam plateau, which is close to India’s Siliguri corridor, for territory in the north and east that Bhutan wants.
But it is equally true that at least for the moment, such a resolution may not be on the cards.
The fact that Indian troops faced off with Chinese troops on Bhutan’s disputed boundary indicates that in the immediate future as well, Delhi and Thimphu will coordinate their approaches on these matters.
The Doklam crisis came up in the parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs on Thursday, with Congress president and committee member Rahul Gandhi asking if the government was aware of “engagements” between Bhutan and China, including a possible “land-swap deal” between the two countries.
Shashi Tharoor, committee head and Congress MP from Thiruvananthapuram, also actively supported his party president in raising several questions, including on the state of infrastructure on both sides of the Bhutan-China boundary.
Foreign Secretary Gokhale and Defence Secretary Sanjay Mitra are said to have assuaged concerns and told the parliamentary panel that “Bhutan is firmly with India,” sources said, and that there was no change in the status quo.
But media reports have claimed that the Chinese have moved between 1,600 and 1,800 PLA troops in the Doklam area, and built two helipads. These troops include two mechanised regiments, two regiments worth of tank transporters and large troop/equipment carrying vehicles.