India’s top diplomat meets Bhutanese King in border town amid Thimpu’s boundary talks with China

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With New Delhi closely monitoring the Thimphu-Beijing boundary negotiation, India’s top diplomat, Foreign Secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra called on Bhutanese King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck – not in the neighbouring country’s capital, but in Gelephu, a town near its border with India.

The king was accompanied by Bhutanese Prime Minister Lotay Tshering when Kwatra and New Delhi’s envoy to Thimphu, Sudhakar Dalela, called on him on Friday. The visit was in keeping with the well-established tradition of regular exchange of high-level visits between Bhutan and India and it would further strengthen the already existing close ties of friendship and cooperation between the two countries, according to a joint press release issued by both governments in New Delhi and Thimphu on Saturday.

The meeting took place amid anxiety in New Delhi over Bhutan’s move to clinch a deal with China to settle the boundary dispute between the two nations and the implications of the proposed settlement on the security interests of India.

The 12th meeting of Bhutan-China expert groups on boundary issue was held in Thimphu on May 24 and 25 last and the two sides agreed to implement the roadmap they had agreed at the 11th meeting of the group at Kunming in China earlier. They agreed not only to hold the next meeting of the experts at an early date, but also to resume the stalled boundary talks as soon as possible.

The prime minister of Bhutan had revealed in an interview to a media organisation in Belgium earlier this year that the negotiations between his nation and China to resolve the protracted boundary dispute had reached an advanced stage. Tshering had said that a delegation of the Government of Bhutan had visited Beijing in February, while a “technical team” of the Government of China might arrive in Thimphu soon. He had gone on to say that Bhutan and China might be able to demarcate the boundary between the two nations after two or three more meetings.

New Delhi is worried over the possibility of Thimphu buckling under pressure from Beijing and accepting China’s sovereignty on 269 sq km of areas in western Bhutan in exchange for China giving up its claim on 495 sq km of areas in north-central Bhutan. If China gains control over the territory it claims in western Bhutan, it will make it easier for its People’s Liberation Army to conduct military manoeuvres aimed at blocking the ‘Siliguri Corridor’ – the narrow stretch of land linking India’s North-East with the rest of the country.

China in 2020 also staked a claim on the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary in eastern Bhutan as part of its own territory. Bhutan of course rejected the claim made by China.

The Bhutanese King visited New Delhi in the first week of April and had a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The visit saw India subtly reminding Bhutan of the “intertwined and indivisible nature” of the security concerns of the two neighbouring nations.

The Bhutan-China expert group meeting in Thimphu was held less than two months after Modi hosted Wangchuck in New Delhi.

Though the king of Bhutan generally grants audiences to foreign dignitaries at his palace in Thimphu, he met the foreign secretary of India at Gelephu – a town near the border between the two countries.

“The visit (by India’s foreign secretary to Bhutan) provided an opportunity to discuss a wide range of matters relating to trade, economic and cross-border connectivity between the two countries,” according to the joint press release issued in Thimphu and New Delhi.

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