China has made new claims to land in Bhutan, calling it disputed territory.
All this began with an online meeting on 29 June, when China objected to Bhutan’s application for a grant from the Global Environment Facility (GEF) Council to develop the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary located in eastern Bhutan. Then on Saturday, 5 July, the Chinese foreign ministry officially told Hindustan Times that the China-Bhutan boundary has never been delimited and there “have been disputes over the eastern, central and western sections for a long time”, cautioning “third party” to refrain from stepping into the breach.
The reference to third party is apparently towards India, reports say. China’s claims have implications for India as the region shares its borders with Arunachal Pradesh – areas of which are also claimed by China.
What Happened in This Meeting?
In the online meeting, Bhutan reacted by objecting to the claims of China and the GEF went ahead and passed the project for the funding they had asked for.
The Indian Express reports that the GEF, according to sources, rejected the claim made by China and approved the project. The GEF, which is a US-based body, was set up in 1992 to finance projects in the evironment sector, The Indian Express reported.
The minutes of the meeting give us an insight into the claims made by both sides. According to them, 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”.
Reacting to this, the council member representing for Bhutan, Aparna Subramani, requested that the views of Bhutan be reflected. She said: “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”.
These Are Not New Disputed Areas, Says China
Bhutan and China have held 24 rounds of talks between 1984 and 2016 to settle their border issue. The Hindustan Times report also states that ‘according to discussions in the Bhutanese parliament and other public records of these meetings, the discussions have only centred on disputes in the western and central sections of the boundary’.
Hindustan Times also spoke to people familiar with the developments, who on the condition of anonymity, said, “The two sides had said things had been narrowed down to the central and western sections and there was even talk of a package deal to settle the issue. If the Chinese position on the eastern section was legitimate, it should have been brought up earlier.”
Reacting to the claims of these being new claims, the Chinese foreign ministry’s statement to Hindustan Times also read, “there are no new disputed areas.” Adding, “China always stands for a negotiated package solution to the China-Bhutan boundary issue”.
Editor From Bhutan Says, ‘There is No Dispute in Eastern Bhutan’
Editor of The Bhutanese Tenzing Lamsang put out a thread of tweets explaining his stance on the issue.
He explained: There are only 2 disputed areas raised in 24 boundary talks since 1984 agreed to by both sides with signed minutes (269 sq km in West & 495 sq km in North-Central Bhutan) The Chinese never brought this up in the boundary talks. So there is no dispute in Eastern Bhutan.
Saying that the eastern sector is very much Bhutanese, Lamsang added, “If such claims are made then it must be by some clueless junior official unaware of the boundary talks. Such claims undermine the boundary talks, and wild claims on either side by officials will only exacerbate issues as Bhutan, too, can lay claims far north.”
Speaking about the need to resolve this issue, Lamsang wrote: “Ultimately Bhutan and China need to resolve its boundary disputes or such false claims will come up as a pressure tactic. This is of course keeping India in the picture in terms of its strategic interests in the area.”
Another Expert Uses Maps to Explain China’s Claim on Sakteng
M Taylor Fravel, who is studying China's foreign and security policies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), said ‘Chinese maps do not show Sakteng or nearby areas in Bhutan as Chinese territory’.
He also refers to one exception but does not testify to the veracity of the map in question.
He adds before ending his thread of tweets, cautioning that he is only speculating, that, “The map depicts Chinese claims in the 1980s, which suggests one possibility: China may have previously entertained pursuing this claim, dropped it during talks with Bhutan, and now hints at reviving it. But I am speculating here.