NEW DELHI: Bhutan’s King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck begins his three-day official visit to India on Monday, in keeping with the long-standing tradition of regular high-level exchanges between the two countries, as the External Affairs Ministry put it. The royal was last here in September 2022. Also, the past six months, the last week in particular, have stirred up some uneasy developments with regard to the Bhutan-China boundary issue.
Both countries held the 11th round of the Expert Group Meeting (EGM) in China’s Kunming city in January this year, declaring “positive consensus” in the boundary talks. The talks promised a swift implementation of an agreement that both sides had signed in 2021, a “three-step road map” to resolve their dispute. StratNewsGlobal had reported extensively on what transpired in that meeting (https://stratnewsglobal.com/neighbours/bhutan/boundary-talks-bhutan-refuses-to-buckle-under-chinese-pressure/).
China has been putting relentless pressure on Bhutan by claiming new areas as we first reported in June 2020 (https://stratnewsglobal.com/china/china-crafts-new-dispute-in-bhutan-wildlife-sanctuary-bordering-india/).
In less than 20 months after standing up to China, in January this year the EGM met again, seemingly taking the issue forward. As is the usual practice, Bhutan kept India in the loop. Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra travelled to Thimphu within a week to understand the nuances.
Last week, an interview given by Bhutanese Prime Minister Lotay Tshering to a Belgian daily raised fresh concerns on Bhutan’s apparent change in stance. Referring to the 2017 standoff involving Indian and Chinese troops in Doklam, Tshering told La Libre: “Doklam is a junction point between India, China and Bhutan. It is not up to Bhutan alone to solve the problem. We are three. There is no big or small country; there are three equal countries, each counting for a third. We are ready. As soon as the other two parties are also ready, we can discuss. India and China have problems all along their border. We are therefore waiting to see how they will resolve their differences”. He also rubbished claims of Chinese settlement on Bhutanese territory.
This was followed by reports and commentary in a section of Indian media that Bhutan had changed its stance on the boundary issue and was veering towards China, something that is not in India’s interest. China’s state-run Global Times carried a report saying border disputes between China and Bhutan have not been settled due to India’s “obstruction”.
The Bhutanese PM was then forced to clarify his statements, saying there was no change in his country’s stance on the border issue.
It is against this backdrop that Bhutan’s King, an alumnus of India’s National Defence College, will be visiting New Delhi. And both sides will hope that misconceptions, if any, will be cleared.