Bhutan king on 3-day visit to India amid Thimphu-Beijing border talks

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Bhutan’s King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk began his three-day visit to India on Monday even as his country nears a settlement on its border dispute with China. 

The monarch is accompanied by Tandi Dorji, Bhutan’s Foreign Minister as well as several senior officials from the government. During his time in India, the King of Bhutan is expected to meet with President Murmu, Prime Minister Modi and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar. 

“The visit would provide an opportunity to both the sides to review the entire gamut of bilateral cooperation and to further advance the close bilateral partnership, including economic and development cooperation,” according to India’s Ministry of External Affairs. 

Although India’s foreign ministry argues that such a visit is simply in keeping with past engagements with Bhutan, the larger political backdrop is hard to miss. Bhutan and China have been negotiating a border settlement to put an end to the disputed boundary claims between the two countries. Bhutan’s Prime Minister Lobgay Tsering also indicated that both sides were making progress and hoped to demarcate the border in the near future. 

However, this development has triggered some anxiety in particular sections of popular opinion, with some believing that Bhutan may strike a border deal with China that endangers India’s security interests. However, others have pointed to statements by senior Bhutanese officials that firmly indicate that no decision will be made on the Doklam border area, which is of strategic value to India, without a trilateral discussion. 

“Bhutan and China have been having their border negotiations for nearly four decades now. The writing in the wall has always been clear – Bhutan is keen on closing its border disputes. But none of these developments will take place without India being aware of them, or without Indian sensitivities being taken into consideration. The controversy on Bhutan and China striking a deal behind India’s back seems like an exaggeration, in my opinion,” says Aditya Gowdara Shivamurthy, Junior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a think-tank. 

Bhutan and China share a disputed border in mainly two areas. In the western parts of the country, there is the disputed tri-junction with India at Doklam, which was the site of a military standoff in 2017. In the north, Bhutan shares a border with Tibet. Jakarlung and Pasamlung valleys in the north are also part of the dispute with China, In 2020, China also claimed that Sakteng wildlife sanctuary, in the eastern reaches of Bhutan, was also a disputed territory. 

“As the King has the power to morally guide the country’s foreign policy, and is supreme commander in chief, it can be expected that negotiations will cover the border dispute. But there are certainly other issues too that Bhutan would want to discuss,” adds Shivamurthy about the monarch’s visit. 

“The King’s visit is likely to cover this multifaceted relationship. While border disputes with China are certainly a part of it, there are also other issues. Cooperation on hydropower electricity, and seeking assistance for the 13th Five Year Plan (2023-2028). Bhutan is also undergoing massive political, administrative and economic reforms. It is only logical for Bhutan to reach out to its long-standing development partner,” he concludes.

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