NEW DELHI: Amid reports that Chinese troops remain stationed in the Doklam region — though away from the site of the showdown with India — Bhutan has again discussed the situation with the Chinese mission here in the context of its border dispute with China.
Diplomatic sources here said Bhutan’s ambassador to India Vetsop Namgyel met Luo Zhaohui, his Chinese counterpart here, on September 27 to discuss the issue of Chinese activities in the Doklam region.
The meeting took place at the Chinese embassy around 4 pm. This was exactly a month after India and China announced disengagement of their troops from the eyeball-to-eyeball standoff on the Doklam plateau which, as both New Delhi and Thimpu believe, is located in Bhutan but is claimed by China.
To be sure, the disengagement announced by India and China on August 28 still holds. As the MEA said in a statement earlier this month, there is no fresh activity at the face-off site and its vicinity and the status quo remains.
As pointed out in several media reports in the past couple of weeks though, Chinese troops remain stationed around 800-900 meters from the face-off site on the Doklam plateau even though Beijing has shifted road construction equipment from that site. Reports citing satellite imagery have stated that China is currently building a road network 10-12 km north of the standoff site.
Bhutan and China are also learnt to have discussed in the meeting the possibility of holding another round of their border talks soon.
With Beijing apparently looking to wean Bhutan away from India’s sphere of influence, any move which Thimpu makes on the issue of the disputed Bhutan-China-India tri-junction is of immense significance to India. The Bhutan envoy’s meeting with Luo coincided with reports that China remained active in the Doklam region, looking probably to improve its access from Yatung, where PLA has a base, to the territory which is disputed between China and Bhutan.
Bhutan authorities remained uncommunicative – after they issued a demarche to China in June – during the 74-day Sino-Indian standoff but after the disengagement was announced, Thimpu welcomed the development expressing hope that this would lead to “maintenance of peace and tranquility and status quo along the borders of Bhutan, China and India in keeping with the existing and agreements between the respective countries” .
This was significant for India as the statement seemed to acknowledge before China that India had a legitimate right to intervene if Beijing unilaterally sought to change the status quo in the disputed area of Doklam. In that context, the 2012 agreement between India and China that tri-junction could only be established by holding consultations with the third country is significant for both India and Bhutan.
A Global Times op-ed recently said that road construction in Doklam area was going to be “a new trend”. While there’s no reason for India to be alarmed yet as China has stopped construction on the road leading south, it is important for New Delhi that Bhutan stands its ground on its border dispute with Beijing in the region.
Chinese control of Doklam leading up to where Beijing believes the tri-junction is, Mount Gipmochi, will render India’s Siliguri Corridor vulnerable but the government has to ensure that it works in absolute harmony with Bhutan. During the standoff, elements in Chinese media had sought to create an impression that Bhutan had been forced to take the position it had taken. This though, as Indian officials say, is not borne out by facts. Bhutan has never in the past accepted China’s claim over Doklam and, in fact, raised the issue of its sovereignty over the area in each of the over 20 rounds of boundary talks it has had with China.