WITH CHINA making new territorial claims in its eastern border with Bhutan this week, there is considerable disquiet in Delhi.
Beijing made this claim while objecting to a request to develop the Sakteng wildlife sanctuary in eastern Bhutan’s Trashigang district at an online meeting of the Global Environment Facility (GEF). Set up in 1992, GEF is a US-based global body to finance projects in the environment sector.
Bhutan objected to the Chinese claim, and the GEF council passed the project for funding. The GEF, according to sources, rejected the Chinese claim and approved the project — but the views of both parties were reflected in the minutes.
Bhutan was represented by Aparna Subramani, Executive Director on the board of World Bank. An IAS officer, she represents Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Sri Lanka since September 1, 2017.
The matter came to a head as China had made the territorial claim at the 58th GEF Council meeting on June 2 and 3.
According to the published minutes of the council meeting, the Chinese representative said, “in light of the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary in the project ID 10561 is located in the China-Bhutan disputed areas which is on the agenda of China-Bhutan boundary talk, China opposes and does not join the Council decision on this project”.
To this, the Council member for the Constituency of India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives and Sri Lanka requested that the views of Bhutan be reflected as follows: “Bhutan totally rejects the claim made by the Council Member of China. Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary is an integral and sovereign territory of Bhutan and at no point during the boundary discussions between Bhutan and China has it featured as a disputed area”.
It is learnt Bhutan has also conveyed its position to China through its embassy in New Delhi — since both countries don’t have embassies in each other’s countries and conduct their diplomatic communication through their missions in Delhi.
Sources said Bhutan and China have held 24 rounds of border talks, and if Beijing raises this issue in the next rounds of border talks, Thimphu will counter it.
The sanctuary, located in the easternmost part of Bhutan, covers 650 sq km, and has not been disputed by China in the past.
Don’t miss from Explained | Both India and China are weighing their options – what can they be?
What has complicated the matter now is that the Chinese foreign ministry, in a statement issued to Hindustan Times in Beijing on Saturday, has said “The boundary between China and Bhutan has never been delimited. There have been disputes over the eastern, central and western sectors for a long time, and there are no new disputed areas. China always stands for a negotiated package solution to the China-Bhutan boundary issue.”
The statement in Mandarin further said “a third party should not point fingers” in the China-Bhutan border issue – an apparent reference to India.
When contacted, the Chinese embassy in New Delhi did not issue any statement. Nor did the Bhutanese embassy offer any comment on the new claim.
But, the Ministry of External Affairs is watching the new claims closely, since Bhutan and China had disputed areas in only two points — north and west. This has been widely known, as per the 24 rounds of border talks between 1984 and 2016.
There hasn’t been any meeting between the two countries since 2017 when the Doklam border stand-off put it off. Sources said it was because of the “Scheduling issues” and then, now because of the pandemic situation. Since India already has a border dispute with Nepal on the Kalapani area, many in Delhi see this as China opening a new front.
When contacted, former Indian ambassador to China, Ashok K Kantha — who is currently Director of the Institute of Chinese Studies — told The Indian Express, “China is expanding its territorial claims against Bhutan. Sakteng was not in disputed areas identified and jointly surveyed by Bhutan and China in western and central sectors.”
Kantha said that this is “part of China’s pressure tactics against Bhutan” and also “part of pattern of China pursuing its contested territorial claims, old and new, against its neighbours, land and maritime.”
Former Indian ambassador to Bhutan, V P Haran, told The Indian Express, “It is a surprising new development. Sakteng or any other part of eastern Bhutan was not disputed. Sakteng is quite some distance from the border with China. There is a dispute in only two segments of the border: in the north – Pasamlung and Jakarlung, and in the west – Doklam and some adjoining areas to the east. Joint field survey was conducted in 2013 and 2015, respectively.”
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines