Talks between Bhutan and China on their border dispute — the root cause of the military standoff on the Doklam plateau which ended Monday with the disengagement of Indian Army and People’s Liberation Army troops — are unlikely to take place as scheduled this year despite diplomats having defused the weeks-long crisis, sources familiar with the issue have told The Indian Express.
Beijing, sources said, has not called for this year’s round of negotiations, normally held between June and August, in a move that experts in Bhutan say indicates it is reluctant to publicly concede that its claims of sovereignty over the Doklam plateau have been disputed for several years.
Failure to resume negotiations leaves open the prospect that fresh crisis could erupt over disputed regions along China’s Chumbi valley, a narrow corridor separating western Bhutan from India’s Sikkim, where the PLA has cut roads towards Royal Bhutan Army outposts in Doklam, Sinchulumpa, Charithang and Dramana.
In a statement released Tuesday, its first in weeks, Bhutan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it welcomed “the disengagement by the two sides at the face-off site in the Doklam area”. “We hope this contributes to the maintenance of peace and tranquility and the status quo along the borders of Bhutan, China and India in keeping with the existing agreements between the respective countries,” it said.
The statement made no reference to China’s decision to terminate road-construction activity designed to upgrade the track leading from Doklam towards India’s forward positions at Doka La, and on to the Royal Bhutan Army’s positions at Zompelri Ridge.
Military sources, however, confirmed they had seen earth-moving equipment being removed prior to the disengagement agreement Monday, making clear no further efforts would be immediately made to build the all-weather road that sparked off the crisis. “From the situation as it is on the ground,” said a military officer familiar with the ground situation, “we are back to where we were before the Royal Bhutan Army’s soldiers at Zompelri first tried to persuade the PLA to stop the road-construction operation in June.”
In the perception of many in Bhutan’s government, the conditions for future crisis remain in place despite Monday’s disengagement deal. “This crisis was never about a road,” a political figure close to Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay said. “Troops seeking to use the Doklam road in a war would have been asking to be massacred by Indian positions higher up the ridge, and it would have disintegrated each winter anyway.” “The reality,” the source said, “is that this crisis emerged from India’s decision to confront Chinese coercive action on the ground. For obvious reasons, this means the situation remains fluid until an actual border agreement is arrived at.”
Residents in the border town of Damthang told The Indian Express that many herders had been told by PLA patrols to turn back this summer from high-altitude grazing grounds they had used for generations — a move that may have been designed to put pressure on Bhutan. “They told herders the pastures belong to China, not Bhutan, and to go back,” said Tshering Paljor from the village of Hatay.
Ever since 2010, a joint Bhutan-China technical commission has been engaged in verifying the border on-ground, in an effort to develop shared 1:100,000 scale maps that would allow the two sides to agree on common landmarks and features to facilitate technical discussions on their claim lines, diplomatic sources said. There has, however, been little forward movement on the substantial disagreements.
From China’s point of view, the most critical of these are over western enclaves, which overlook its highway linking the town of Yatung with Lhasa — a key logistical route for the PLA, which is at a tactical disadvantage in the sector. Beijing has also said it plans to build a railway along the route.
Loosely demarcated through much of history, efforts to formally delineate the Bhutan-China date back to 1980, when Thimphu decided to open border negotiations with Beijing. In 1990, Beijing offered Thimphu a swap, saying it would concede its claims to the Pasamlung and Jakarlung valleys in the country’s north, if Bhutan would hand over the four enclaves along the Chumbi valley.
Even though Bhutan is believed to have been initially inclined to take the deal, it soon changed course: in November, 1996, Thimphu’s negotiators returned to the table with claims to the western enclaves that were more expansive than those that they had made earlier. Furious, Beijing alleged that India was behind this about-turn.
Though both countries signed a 1998 agreement committing them to maintain the status quo, the actual border talks rapidly got bogged down around Bhutan’s new claims in Doklam, and broke down completely from 2006 to 2009.
In these years, Beijing ramped up the pressure, building at least six roads cutting deep into the western enclaves — among them, one cutting through the Torsa Nature Reserve towards the Zompelri ridge, the closest point to the Bhutan-China-India junction where the Royal Bhutan Army is stationed.
Though the PLA had long carried out patrols up to the Zompelri ridge, asserting its claims to the territory, the construction of the road marked a physical assertion of its case — and a violation of the 1998 agreement committing both sides to respect the status quo.