The Chinese government's decision for the first time to publicly put on record that it has a boundary dispute with Bhutan in the eastern sector is a calibrated manner of launching a diplomatic attack on Thimphu's ally India on a new front.
The key could be the proximity of Bhutan's "eastern sector" to Arunachal Pradesh – which China claims in its entirety as part of "south Tibet" : It could be the primary reason for Beijing to talk about differing boundary perceptions with Bhutan now.
First at a multilateral environment forum in June, where India was present, and then through a statement to HT, the Chinese foreign ministry has said it has a border dispute with Bhutan in the eastern sector, surprising many who are following developments in the region.
Besides multiplying pressure on New Delhi during the ongoing, and most serious border tension with India in decades, it is also a ploy by China to simultaneously internationalise an issue it has seldom done before – the boundary problem with its tiny neighbour.
Though China might not have said it publicly, it's not surprising if Beijing was opposed to the India-Bhutan boundary delimitation agreement, which was signed in 2006 -- more so because of Bhutan's borders with Arunachal Pradesh.
The Chinese foreign ministry, in a statement issued to Hindustan Times last week, said the China-Bhutan boundary has never been delimited and there "have been disputes over the eastern, central and western sections for a long time". The statement in Mandarin further said "a third party should not point fingers" in the China-Bhutan border issue – an apparent reference to India.
Referring to Chinese foreign ministry's statement saying the disputes in the three areas have been there "for a long time", Constantino Xavier, fellow in foreign policy studies at the think-tank Brookings India, said the timing chosen by Beijing to raise the issue – amid the ongoing Sino-India border tension -- was important.
"Even while this Chinese claim may not be new, the timing and the multilateral setting of Beijing's statement reflect intent to put pressure on Bhutan and India, seeking to create a wedge between both countries," Xavier said.
"You got to see the Chinese claims in continuation to their strategy of territorial claims elsewhere," a New Delhi-based Asia expert said on condition of anonymity.
China's state-controlled media and Chinese academics consistently blame India for Beijing-Thimphu not having diplomatic ties.
"As far as I know, the China-Bhutan boundary issue was almost resolved 20 years ago. The two sides have a common understanding on how to sign the final agreement. But for Bhutan, it is difficult because of the India factor. That is the same reason why China and Bhutan have not signed the agreement," Lin Minwang, assistant dean at the Institute of International Studies at Shanghai's Fudan University, said.
Will publicising the problem now help China?
"But using Bhutan to target India may turn out to be counterproductive for China: it will lose political capital in Bhutan and is actually facilitating closer diplomatic coordination between Thimphu and Delhi."
In 2018 July, vice foreign minister Kong Xuanyou led a rare high-level visit from China to Bhutan; he was accompanied by Luo Zhaohui, the then Chinese envoy to India.
The Chinese foreign ministry statement released at the end of his visit said: "China highly values its traditional friendly relations with Bhutan, and will as always respect Bhutan's independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, respect the political system and development path chosen by Bhutan based on its own national conditions, and respect the independent foreign policy of peace upheld by Bhutan."