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Bhutan's Northern Border:China's Bullying and Teasing Tactics

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In response to the concerns of the Parliamentarians, the Secretary of International Boundaries Dasho Pema Wangchuk gave a detailed briefing on the current status of Bhutan-China boundary negotiations on 4th of December 2009.

What is note worthy is that the Secretary was very candid and did not try to hide from the members of the Parliament and the people on the difficulties encountered in negotiating with the Chinese and the deep intrusions being made by the Chinese regularly on its border.

This is quite in contrast to what the Indian people are treated in the matter of Chinese intrusions that are regularly taking place and the Ministry of External Affairs continues to claim that the so called intrusions are nothing but differences in “perception.”

The points made by Wangchuk on December 4th were

* In 2008, the Chinese soldiers intruded deep into Bhutanese territory and came to Bhutanese Army’s outpost at Lharigang in the Charithang valley. In the year 2009, the Chinese intruded 17 times up to the RBA post.

* In 2004, the Chinese started road construction work from the Langmorpo stream towards the Zuri ridge. After several protests and discussions at the foreign minister level, the Chinese stopped the construction work.

* However in August 2009, the Chinese have started the extension of the road construction work again between Zuri and Phuteogang ridge that overlooks the disputed Charithang valley. The Bhutanese government protested four times that year. The action of the Chinese was in violation of the 1998 agreement between China and Bhutan on the maintenance of peace and tranquility and also of the mutual acceptance to maintain the status quo as agreed to in March 1959..

The Secretary conceded that there are four areas in the western border that are being disputed by the Chinese and that would include Doklam, Charithang, Sinchulimpa and Dramana pasture land.

In the case of the disputed area of 495 Sq.km, in another sector in Bayul Pasanglung the Secretary said that China had conceded the territory as that of Bhutan in an overall package deal that was discussed then. The Secretary has maintained that the Chinese position in this area has been consistent. But what is important is that the Chinese are willing to give up the claim only when other aspects of the package deal are accepted and implemented. This included trade and progress in diplomatic relations that would include perhaps an embassy of theirs in Thimpu.

Some time in April last year, a brief history of the border talks- 1st to 18th. was presented to the Parliament The 19th session is due this January.

As before Bhutan government gave a frank over view and nothing was held back or made light of. The Foreign Minister personally briefed the National Assembly in response to the request made by the Member of Parliament of Haa that is close to the western border with China and his concerns about the Chinese intrusions.

The foreign minister briefed the Assembly frankly on the progress of the talks. He said as follows

* The first four rounds had focussed on discussions regarding the guidelines for boundary negotiations, based on the five principles of peaceful coexistence: mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non aggression, non interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit and peaceful co existence.

* In the fifth round of May 1988, the Chinese side made known their perception of the Bhutan-China border line, while the Bhutanese side noted their presentation. The 68th session of the National Assembly was presented, showing the Bhutanese claim based on Martham Chem, patrolling limit and traditional usage and Chinese claims in the fifth round. It was thoroughly discussed in the house, which eventually endorsed the Bhutanese claim line.

* In the sixth round, there were more discussions with maps of Bhutan on 1:500,000 scale, depicting the claim lines of both sides being exchanged. There were maps exchanged and discussion on the Western Bhutan and China’s borders.

* In the seventh round in 1990, the Chinese side made some additional offers on the Luling valley sector, the acceptance of which would make them forego their claim in the middle sector.

* In the eighth round, the Bhutanese delegation proposed further territorial adjustments in the Western Sector, however there was not much progress in the next four rounds of talks.

* In the twelfth round, the Chinese side brought the draft of a proposed interim agreement on the maintenance of peace and tranquillity along the Sino-Bhutan border areas, which was later signed by the two foreign ministers after discussions.

* In the thirteenth round in September 1999 in Thimphu, the Chinese side came up with a policy on Bhutan, with proposals for settlement of boundary, establishment of diplomatic relations and trade. The Chinese side proposed that the two sides might concentrate on preparation of descriptions and confirmation of border alignment, adding a new dimension to talks.

* In the fourteenth round in 2000, as China was a larger country, the Chinese side was requested to show greater consideration on the Bhutanese perception of the traditional boundary in Doklam, Sinchulumpa, Dramana and Shakhatoe areas. The Bhutanese side also proposed cartographic discussions.

* In the fifteenth round, the two sides agreed to continue discussions at the expert level groups, to focus mainly on maps and other areas to enhance official talks.

* In the sixteenth round, maps made by the expert group showing claims of both sides were exchanged. In the seventeenth round in April 2004, it was decided to first narrow down the differences at the expert group level.

* However in 2005, the maps were examined but could not be exchanged due to the vast differences between the two claim lines. The Chinese side had differences in areas amounting to 1300 Sq. Km, of which they were ready to consider giving 900 Sq. km.

* In the eighteenth round in Beijing in 2006, the Bhutanese side stressed that the package solution offered by the Chinese in 1990 during the 7th round was not favourable to Bhutan, since the offered Pasamlug already belonged to Bhutan.

The importance of pasture lands in the western sector to the livelihood of yak herders in northern Bhutan was explained. The Chinese side maintained that the basis of further negotiations must be acceptance of the package deal and that China was ready to make minor adjustments within it

Some points worth noting are

* It was only in May 1988 that the Chinese side formally made known their version which was unreasonable.

* In 1990, it became clear that the Chinese want to claim more on the western sector and were willing to forego the claim in the middle sector. The reasons for this move were obvious. The Chinese want to get as much space as possible in the western sector that is close to tri junction of India- Bhutan and China. The reasons for the claim were not on traditional usage, history etc. but purely based on the strategic nature of the western border that is close to the tri junction and India.

* It was in 1999, that the Chinese came up with a comprehensive package deal that for the first time formally raised the issue of establishment of diplomatic relations and trade. The Chinese no doubt wanted to establish a diplomatic mission in Thimpu as a condition for the final settlement of the boundary. There was no offer of any specific concession in the western sector in the package deal.

* In the fourteenth round, the Bhutanese made a fervent plea that it being a very small country and China a much larger country, the latter should show some consideration in the four disputed areas in the western sector. But this was rejected by Chinese. No mercy.

* The package deal was not acceptable to the Bhutanese side as it involves many areas other than the dispute of the border areas. In the last round of the talks ( eighteenth in Beijing) the Chinese made it very clear that further basis of negotiations must be the acceptance of the package offered by them earlier and that China is willing to make some minor adjustments within it.

* The package deal was nothing new. Since 1974 China has been pitching for bilateral trade and closer diplomatic relations. Since nothing had moved, it has now made it official as a quid pro quo for any border settlement. Even here China is willing to accept only “minor adjustments” and Bhutan should be clear by now that even with the establishment of bilateral trade and establishment of the embassy, China will be unwilling to make any major concession in the western sector which is strategically important to China which at the same time is equally of strategic importance to India too.

* There are two views in India on the border problems between Bhutan and China. One view is that Bhutan’s border problem will be settled once the border dispute between India and China is resolved. The other view is that once Bhutan is weaned away from India, the Chinese will probably be more reasonable and may be more generous.

While the first position is unlikely, there are no reasons to believe that the Chinese are going to be generous in the second case- as China is very unlikely to give up its position in the four areas of the western sector which is equally important for Bhutan’s security too.

In the near future while major clashes may not occur between the PLA and RBA, China will continue to tease and bully Bhutan and its border outpost personnel. This is the China that is supposed to rise “peacefully”! .

( Courtesy: www.southasiaanalysis.org. The writer, Dr S.Chandrasekharan is Director of South Asia Analysis Group, New Delhi.Email:south@southasiaanalysis.org)

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