China Wants Bhutan’s 'Active Participation' in the Belt and Road Initiative

This was said after the first visit by a senior Chinese government functionary to Bhutan since the Doklam stand-off last year.

New Delhi: Calling for its “active participation”, China has claimed that Bhutan admires the “Belt and Road Initiative”. China also said it considers relations between the two countries to be a “model” for partnership.

The apparent bonhomie between the two countries over the Belt and Road Initiative was part of the official press release issued by the Chinese foreign ministry at the end of the two-day visit by Chinese vice foreign minister Kong Xuanyou to Bhutan. This was the first visit by a senior Chinese government functionary to Bhutan since the Doklam stand-off last year. China’s ambassador to India Luo Zhaohui also accompanied the delegation.

The visit takes place just a week before the current Bhutanese government’s tenure ends on July 31. The next parliamentary elections will likely take place in September.

The press release from the Bhutanese foreign ministry was perfunctory, with no details about the discussions. It noted that the Chinese official held discussions with Bhutan’s foreign minister Damcho Dorji.

It also mentioned that Bhutanese King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck had granted an audience to the Chinese vice foreign minister, who also called on Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay.

At a weekly briefing on Tuesday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said that two sides “exchanged in-depth views on the China-Bhutan relations and border issues and reached common understandings”. He also referred to the press release issued by the ministry, which was in Mandarin.

A rough translation of the press release said that China respects Bhutan’s “independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

While stating that China respected Bhutan’s political system and development path, the senior Chinese foreign official also drew attention to “Bhutan’s independent foreign policy of peace”.

During the Doklam crisis, there had been almost daily statements from the Chinese foreign ministry which accused India of violating Bhutan’s sovereignty by taking a stand on its behalf against road construction by Chinese troops.

Bhutan had in a June 29 press release stated that the Chinese construction of a road from Dokola to Zompheri was a “direction violation” of written agreements between the two sides on maintaining status quo at the border.

During the stand-off, which lasted nearly nine weeks, China had implied several times that India was forcibly continuing to challenge the Chinese soldiers by overturning a more moderate Bhutanese position. This was denied by the Bhutanese government.

While Bhutan did not give any details, the border issue certainly did come up, as per the Chinese version of events. “The two sides should continue to push forward the border negotiations, abide by the principled consensus reached, jointly safeguard peace and tranquility in the border areas, and create positive conditions for the final settlement of the border issue,” said the read-out from Beijing. China and Bhutan hold annual border talks, but had skipped them last year.

The Chinese foreign ministry on Tuesday added that Beijing had conveyed to Thimpu that it was “willing to work with the parties to maintain high-level contacts, expand pragmatic cooperation, strengthen multilateral communication and coordination, and achieve common development on the basis of mutual respect and mutual benefit”.

According to a translation, the press release also noted that China wanted Bhutan to take part in their flagship initiative, previously known as ‘One Belt, One Road’, to finance and construct infrastructure projects.

“China welcomes Bhutan’s active participation in the “Belt and Road Initiative” and sharing China’s development dividend,” said the press note, referring to the message conveyed by the visiting senior Chinese diplomat.

Incidentally, Bhutan was on the only country, besides India, which did not attend the Belt and Road Summit in Beijing last year, despite an official invitation.

The Chinese release mentioned Bhutan’s apparent admiration for the Belt and Road Initiative twice. It noted that the Bhutanese leadership “…welcomed the positive progress of the “One Belt, One Road” initiative put forward by President Xi Jinping, praised China’s contribution to promoting world peace, prosperity and development, and its greater role in the international arena”.

The two sides also apparently agreed that “although the diplomatic relations between the two countries have not been established, the traditional friendship between the two countries is a model for large and small countries”. Bhutan told the Chinese official, as per Beijing’s press release, that it was “willing to maintain communication with China on bilateral relations and border issues”.

Last month, the Bhutanese prime minister gave his last state of the nation speech for the current term. “Our relations with China, the second largest economy in the world and an emerging global power, is increasing and we continue to maintain peaceful and cordial relations,” said Tshering Tobgay during a section on relations with neighbours.

He added, “The government continues to take a strategic long-term view of our engagement with China to ensure that our national interests are secured.”