Eye on India, China picks up fresh border row with Bhutan

Photo: Google Map showing China’s new, latest territory claim in Bhutan’s eastern sector.

By Amit Agnihotri

New Delhi: An expansionist China has now picked up a fresh border dispute with Himalayan nation Bhutan in an apparent attempt to target India with whom the Asian giant has been locked in a bitter military conflict eastern Ladakh since May.

The problem started in June when China objected to Bhutan’s application for a grant from the Global Environment Facility Council (GEF) for the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary. The sanctuary spread over 650 square kilometres is situated in the far eastern reaches of the Himalayan kingdom. It has never been disputed by China in the past.

The GEF Council is a United States-based outfit, which has been providing financial assistance for environmental projects since 1992.

Though Bhutan’s demand for a grant, made during an online interaction last month, was approved by the GEF Council, China used the occasion to claim that the said wildlife sanctuary was part of a disputed territory and that no third party, an obvious reference to India, should point fingers at the Asian giant.

An angry Bhutan immediately retorted that Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary is an integral part of the Himalayan country and later shot off a missive to the Chinese embassy in India. As China and Bhutan do not have embassies of each other, the diplomatic communication between the two countries is routed through their embassies located in New Delhi.

Recently, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in a statement issued to Hindustan Times newspaper in Beijing, said, “the boundary between China and Bhutan has never been delimited. There have been disputes over the eastern, central and western sectors for a long time, and there are no new disputed areas. China always stands for a negotiated package solution to the China-Bhutan boundary issue.”

The statement, in Mandarin, further said “a third party should not point fingers” in the China-Bhutan border issue — an oblique reference to India.

In a series of tweets, Tenzing Lamsang, theeditor of The Bhutanese newspaper, strongly refuted the Chinese claims, saying in 24 border talks with Bhutan since 1984, China never raised issues in eastern parts of the Himalayan kingdom.

Recently, similar expansionist Chinese mindset was visible, as reports of a border dispute surfacing with Nepal, but were quickly pushed behind an official notification, which said all land disputes with China would be dealt as per the established protocols.

Three Nepali Congress Members of Parliament had alleged that China had encroached 64 hectares of land in Dolakha, Humla, Sindhupalchowk, Sankhuwasabha, Gorkha and Rasuwa districts of the other Himalayan country. They also said that some of the total 98 boundary pillars along the 1414.88-kilometer-long border between Nepal and China were missing while several others had been shifted inside the territory of Nepal.

Interestingly, Nepal, at the behest of China, had opened a new border dispute with India after recently passed a new map claiming Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura in the Indian province of Uttarkhand as its own. India believes China instigated Nepal for the move, which was a result of a road in Lipulekh that India built to facilitate pilgrimage to Kailash Mansarovar in Tibet, which is held by China, and passing through Nepal. India claims the road falls in its own territory.

The case, however, is different with Bhutan, with whom China has some bitter memories of 2017 when the Doklam military stand-off happened and had brought the Indian Army into the picture to counter the Chinese People’s Liberation Army efforts to change the status quo.

The Bhutan development, which comes amidst India-China border tensions in eastern Ladakh, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh, has made New Delhi sit up and take note of the Chinese attempts to target India by pressuring its smaller neighbors.

In 2017, PLA troops had began building a road straight up to Bhutan’s territory in Doklam. India had then moved forces to prevent China from building a road up to Jhampheri ridge. The resulting stand-off between India and China, as India tried to save its all-weather Himalayan friend from the regional bully, had lasted for 72 days.

After the 1962 war, China had illegally occupied around 38,000 sq km of India’s land in Aksai Chin in its western sector. Recently, China claimed it had sealed border pacts with 12 of its 14 neighbors, though it keeps opening up new chapters of boundary disputes with all its neighbours, be it in Tibetan plateau, South China Sea or in East China Sea in the Indo-Pacific region.

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