New Delhi: The Bhutanese prime minister Lotay Tshering has stated that negotiations on the tri-junction issue must be done with India’s involvement, even as he expressed that Bhutan will be able to demarcate some of its boundaries with China in a “meeting or two”.
During a visit to Belgium, he spoke with a Belgian newspaper La Libre about border negotiations with China in an interview published on March 25.
In that interview, he denied that China had built facilities inside Bhutanese territory. “There is much information circulating in the media about Chinese installations in Bhutan. We don’t make a big deal of it because it’s not in Bhutan. We said it categorically, there is no intrusion as mentioned in the media. This is an international border, and we know exactly what belongs to us,” he said, as per a machine translation.
Tshering said that while Bhutan did not have “major border problems” with China, “certain territories are not yet demarcated”.
“Last month, a Bhutanese delegation visited China, and we are now awaiting the arrival of a Chinese technical team in Bhutan. After one or two more meetings, we will probably be able to draw a line,” the Bhutanese PM told the Belgian paper.
In January this year, a Bhutanese delegation visited Kunming to participate in the 11th expert group meeting on the China-Bhutan boundary issues.
In addition, Tshering mentioned that Thimphu is monitoring the progress of India and China’s efforts to resolve their boundary disputes, as he then hoped to take forward the matter concerning the Doklam trijunction.
“Doklam is a junction point between India, China and Bhutan. It is not up to Bhutan alone to fix the problem. There are three of us. There is no big or small country; all are three equal countries, each counting for one-third,” said Tshering
These talks on the tri-junction can only start once India and China have “settled” their differences along their borders.
“We are ready. We can discuss this as soon as the other two parties are ready. India and China have problems all along their border. We are waiting to see how they will settle their differences,” he added.
China claims approximately 764 square km in the northwest and central areas of the Himalayan kingdom.
The dispute was initially part of the India-China border negotiations, but direct talks between China and Bhutan commenced in 1984. Since then, there have been more than 24 rounds of border talks and 11 rounds of meetings at the expert level.
In 1997, China proposed a ‘package deal’ wherein they would relinquish claims on central Bhutanese areas in exchange for western territory, including Doklam. However, Bhutan declined the offer, purportedly under pressure from India, concerned about China’s proximity to the Siliguri corridor.
In June 2017, Indian soldiers challenged Chinese troops constructing a road in Bhutan’s Doklam region near the tri-junction of the three countries’ boundaries. The standoff lasted for 73 days, and while Indian and Chinese troops eventually withdrew from the location, satellite images indicate that China has since built up military infrastructure in the area.
During the 2017 Doklam crisis, the Ministry of External Affairs publicly revealed that the two Special Representatives had reached an understanding five years ago in 2012 that “the tri-junction boundary points between India, China and third countries will be finalized in consultation with the concerned countries”.
China had denied that there was a 2012 “understanding” over future trilateral talks on tri-junction. “What was agreed in the 2012 understanding was that in the future, the parties will conduct demarcation on the side of the tri-junction area. This serves to prove that the Indian side had agreed to the fact that the tri-junction area has been established at least on paper,” China’s deputy chief of mission Liu Jinsong told reporters in August 2017.
The Bhutanese PM’s remarks in last week’s interview that three countries would have to finalise the tri-junction point only after joint talks mirrors the 2012 agreement as articulated by India.
After 24 rounds of talks, Bhutan and China signed a “three-step roadmap” for expediting talks to demarcate their land boundary in October 2021.
Stating that India had “noted” the signing of the MoU, MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi added, “You are aware that Bhutan and China have been holding boundary negotiations since 1984. Similarly, India has been holding boundary negotiations with China”.
Note: This article has been edited since publication to include excerpts from the Belgian interview, which have replaced quotes from news outlets’ reports on the piece.