After talks in Thimphu, Bhutan and China said they had made more progress in implementing a “three-step roadmap” towards resolving their boundary dispute. The 12th Expert Group Meeting (EGM), which oversees the actual boundary talks, was held in the Bhutanese capital just four months after the 11th round of EGM talks was held in Kunming. It stressed the “importance of increasing the frequency of their meetings.” However, the meeting didn’t announce any breakthrough in setting a date for the next round or the 25th round of boundary talks, which have not been held since 2016, and was suspended after the military standoff at Doklam, but said that they agreed to hold them “as soon as possible at mutually convenient dates.”
“The two sides expressed their confidence in the Three-Step Roadmap and reiterated the importance of increasing the frequency of their meetings to make further progress in its implementation. They agreed to hold the next EGM in Beijing at an early date,” said the joint statement issued by Bhutanese and Chinese Foreign Ministers after the conclusion of the talks on 24-25 May. “The meeting was held in a warm and friendly atmosphere in keeping with the close ties of friendship and cooperation between Bhutan and China,” it added.
While there was a two-year gap between the 10th round of the EGM held in April 2021 and the 11th round of the EGM held in January 2023, it is significant that the 12th round has followed within months and could indicate a more rapid development in the talks. The announcement that the next venue of the meeting is Beijing may also indicate progress, as the last few rounds have been held in Kunming or Thimphu and not in the Chinese capital.
The Bhutanese delegation, which included Bhutanese Ambassador to India Gen (Retd) Vetsop Namgyel, was led by Letho Tobdhen Tangbi, Secretary of the International Boundaries, and the Chinese delegation was led by Hong Liang, Director-General of the Department Boundary and Ocean Affairs of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China. According to the joint statement, the two sides “expressed satisfaction” with the progress in implementing the “Three-Step roadmap” they had agreed to in October 2021 in a special virtual meeting of Foreign Ministers.
The MEA declined to comment on the statement after the latest round of EGM talks.
While India rarely comments on the bilateral talks between Bhutan and China, officials say they are kept abreast of developments, and that any talks over the trijunction area at Doklam, would only be held with India at the table. Just a few days after the last EGM talks in Kunming in January this year, for example, Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra had travelled to Thimphu for discussions.
The current round of “expedited” talks also follows Bhutan King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck’s visit to India in April, where the latest developments in talks with China are understood to have been discussed. Experts in India have warned that any deal between Beijing and Thimphu that accedes to a “swap arrangement” between areas to the North (Jamparlung and Pasamlung valleys) with Doklam to the West would be of concern to India, given the proximity to India’s narrow “Siliguri corridor” that connects North Eastern states with the rest of India.
In March this year, the Bhutanese Prime Minister had disclosed in an interview that the talks in Thimphu were expected soon, adding that the process of “demarcating territories” and “drawing a line” could be completed “after one or two more meetings.” He had also said in the interview, which caused a controversy in New Delhi, that Bhutan was watching to see how India and China “resolve their differences” along the Line of Actual Control between them, where there has been a military standoff since April 2020, before discussing the possibility of trilateral talks.
The Boundary Talks between Bhutan and China began in 1984, and they held the 24th round in 2016. Bhutan and China also signed two agreements: the Guiding Principles on the Settlement of the Boundary Issues in 1988, and the Agreement on Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity along the border areas in 1998 to set the base for their talks that basically focus on disputed areas to Bhutan’s North, and to its West, abutting the Doklam plateau. However, these have been stalled since 2016, especially after the 2017 Doklam incident between the Indian and Chinese armies, which eventually disengaged from the trijunction area after a tense standoff lasting three months.