China on Saturday officially stated for the first time it has a boundary dispute with Bhutan in the eastern sector, a development with significant implications for India as the region borders Arunachal Pradesh, which is also claimed by Beijing.
The Chinese foreign ministry, in a statement issued to Hindustan Times, 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.
Bhutan and China have held 24 rounds of talks between 1984 and 2016 to settle their border issue and, according to discussions in the Bhutanese parliament and other public records of these meetings, the discussions have only centred on disputes in the western and central sections of the boundary.
People familiar with developments in Thimphu said on condition of anonymity that the eastern section has never figured in the border talks. "The two sides had said things had been narrowed down to the central and western sections and there was even talk of a package deal to settle the issue. If the Chinese position on the eastern section was legitimate, it should have been brought up earlier," said one of the people cited above.
An expert from Bhutan who has tracked the talks added: "This is an entirely new claim. There are signed minutes of the meetings from both sides narrowing the disputes to only the western and central sections."
There was no immediate reaction to China's claim from Indian officials. However, China's claim came against the backdrop of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's assertion during a visit to Ladakh on Friday that the "era of expansionism" is over – which was perceived as a signal to Beijing about New Delhi's determination to defend its frontiers.
Without elaborating on the actual areas of dispute, the Chinese foreign ministry's statement 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," added the statement, provided by the foreign ministry after HT reached out for a response to reports about China objecting to a grant request for Sakteng wildlife sanctuary in eastern Bhutan's Trashigang district at a virtual meeting of the Washington-based Global Environment Facility (GEF) in June. The sanctuary, located in the easternmost part of Bhutan, covers 650 sq km.
At the meeting, Chinese representative Zhongjing Wang claimed the sanctuary was located in an area disputed between Bhutan and China. Aparna Subramani, an Indian official serving as an executive director in the World Bank and representing Bhutan at the meeting, said the Chinese claim was not "unchallenged".
A majority of GEF's council subsequently approved funding for the project while the Chinese representative abstained and didn't join the decision. Official documents issued by GEF showed Sakteng sanctuary as part of Bhutan's territory.
The Chinese representative's attempts to formally record his country's objections through an amendment of GEF's documents did not receive consensus. Bhutan's views were also made part of the record: "Bhutan totally rejects the claim made by the Council Member of China. Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary is an integral and sovereign territory of Bhutan and at no point during the boundary discussions between Bhutan and China has it featured as a disputed area."
In addition to registering its position at GEF, Bhutan's foreign ministry issued a demarche or formal diplomatic representation to the Chinese embassy in New Delhi on the matter, people familiar with developments said.
Apart from India, Bhutan is the only other country with a land boundary dispute with China. Beijing and Thimphu currently don't have diplomatic relations, though the Chinese envoy in New Delhi informally looks after relations with Bhutan.
Experts believe China's move is aimed at opening new fronts to increase the pressure on India amid the stand-off between Indian and Chinese troops along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
Sangeeta Thapliyal of the School of International Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, a leading expert on the Himalayan region, said: "Bhutan's Trashigang is at a tri-junction with India and China and opposite West Kameng district in Arunachal Pradesh, and this area has never been raised in Bhutan-China border talks. This is aimed at pressuring India and Bhutan and also challenging India's relationship with Bhutan.
"China is seeking to open up more theatres and this is a continuation of the policy to pressure India through the Himalayas. This is clearly a form of signalling by China amid the border stand-off."
The India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty of 2007 enjoins both sides to "cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests", and experts believe the Chinese move, like the intrusions in Doklam in 2017 that also triggered a standoff, is aimed at driving a wedge between New Delhi and Thimphu.
The Bhutan-China border talks have focused on differences over 495 sq km in Jakurlung and Pasamlung valleys in the central section and 269 sq km in western Bhutan, including the Doklam plateau.
The so-called "package deal" offered by China to Bhutan reportedly involved Beijing giving up its claim in the central section and part of the western section in exchange for access to around 100 sq km in Doklam, which would bring China closer to India's vulnerable "chicken's neck" or the Siliguri corridor.
Tenzing Lamsang, editor of The Bhutanese newspaper, said the eastern section now being claimed by China "is very much Bhutanese with a large Bhutanese population and traditional Dzongs (medieval fortresses) and two Bhutanese districts since time immemorial". The Chinese claim would only "undermine the boundary talks", he tweeted.
The Chinese foreign ministry's statement said the country has been in communication with Bhutan on the border issue through bilateral channels. "There is a ministerial boundary-talks mechanism and an expert group on boundary issues at the department level," it said.
"Both sides agreed to seek a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable solution in the spirit of friendly consultation and mutual understanding and accommodation. Pending the final settlement of the border issue the two sides are committed to maintain peace and tranquility in the border areas," it added.