There has been no mention of Eastern Bhutan, or Trashigang Zongkhag (district), where Sakteng is based, in 24 previous rounds of boundary negotiations held between the two countries Credit: Twitter image

New Delhi: Beijing has now doubled down in including Bhutan’s “Eastern Sectors” to the boundary dispute between the two countries for the first time. This is just days after Bhutan set a demarche questioning and protesting China’s claims to the Sakteng wildlife sanctuary in Eastern Bhutan.

In a statement made to the media in Beijing, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) said that the boundary dispute between Bhutan and China has never been delimited. According to the statement, there always have been disputes over the eastern, central, and western sectors for quite some time now. The MFA was reacting to inquiries regarding China’s endeavor a month ago to stop funding for the Sakteng wildlife sanctuary from the UN Development Program’s Global Environment Facility (GEF), in light of the fact that it was “disputed” territory.

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Till 2016 and starting from 1984, Bhutan and China have had 24 rounds of talks to find any resolution to their border dispute. Moreover, according to the discussions in the parliament of Bhutan and other written public records, the discussions in these meeting have only ever centred on disputes in the central and western sections of the boundary. There has never been a mention of Eastern Bhutan or even the district of Trashigang Zongkhag (where Sakteng is based) which borders the Indian state Arunachal Pradesh in these talks.

These talks have been on a hiatus ever since the Doklam standoff in 2017 between Indian and Chinese troops. However, in the year 2018 on July Kong Xuanyou, Chinese vice-foreign minister and some other officials visited Bhutan and also met with the Bhutanese king, its prime ministers, and other officials but the 25thh talk did not take place. If sources are to be believed, the 2019 talks did not happen due to some scheduling issues and the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed the discussions further in the year 2020.

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There has also been no reaction from Indian officials to China’s claim. However, one must note that the claim made by China came against the backdrop of PM Modi’s assertion during his Friday visit to Ladakh that an “era of expansionism” is over. This can be perceived as a signal by the New Delhi to Beijing about India’s determination to defend its frontiers.

Bhutan has also given its indirect message in the GEF meeting that decides on global grants for different projects and the sanctuary has received such grants in the past too. This includes the year 2018-2019 for a project on soil erosion prevention without any objections from China. China, however, raised the border issue on GEF 2020 and Bhutan gave a strong message as well.

GEF 2020 which was held virtually on June 2 to June 3 released GEF Council Chairman’s summary on June 16. There is stated that Aparna Subramani, the World Bank official that represented Bhutan along with India, Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Bangladesh said that Bhutan totally rejects the claim made by the Council Member of China.

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