Claim to Sakteng is more a strong political message than an attempt by China to covet that sanctuary. It is probably born out of their keenness to move the boundary talks forward on their terms and to build pressure on Bhutan to settle the border issue with China at the earliest.

By Amb V.P.Haran

An attempt was made by China last month to stop Global Environment Facility [GEF] funding for the Sakteng Wildlife sanctuary in Bhutan. Since it did not press with its objection, it was clearly aimed at sending a strong political message to Bhutan that nothing is settled on the border issue until everything is stitched up and that it is in Bhutan’s interest to settle the border with China. The sub text was that such settlement will be on China’s own terms. China would not have been oblivious to the other message that Bhutan and India inferred from this outrageous claim that Sakteng is disputed territory: China cannot be trusted to implement the agreements it has signed upto.

Brief History: Till China sprang on the scene in 1950 and occupied Tibet and unleashed ‘reforms’, Bhutan’s dealings were with Tibet only. Despite the historically strong religious and cultural links that Bhutan had with Tibet, it had troubled relations with Tibet which had invaded Bhutan on more than a dozen occasions in the previous three centuries, unsuccessfully. The last source of friction happened in 1903-04, when Col Younghusband was sent on a military mission to Lhasa by British India for getting Tibet to accept the 1890 Convention between China and British India that demarcated the boundary between Sikkim and Tibet.Trongsa Penlop [Governor] of Bhutan, Ugyen Wangchuck was part of the mission; later in 1907 when Bhutan became a hereditary monarchy he became the first Druk Gyalpo [King].

Bhutan does not have diplomatic relations with China or with any of the other UNSC permanent members as it does not want to become a playground for big power politics. In fact, Bhutan chose to isolate itself from the rest of the international community till 1968, when it established diplomatic relations with India. China’s ‘five fingers of Tibet’ policy attributed to Mao caused serious concern in Bhutan. That theory postulates that Tibet is like the palm of the right hand of China, with Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and NEFA [present day Arunachal Pradesh] being the five fingers. In a meeting in Lhasa in July 1959, Chinese Lt. Gen Zhang Guohua said, ‘Bhutanese, Sikkimese and Ladakhis form a united family with Tibet and to the great motherland of China. They must once again be united and taught the communist doctrine’.

There were other suzerainty claims too. In between China resorted to cartographic aggression, showing the entire eastern part of Bhutan as part of Tibet and China. Later maps, however, did not show eastern Bhutan as Chinese territory. Against this background, the flight of Dalai Lama to India in March 1959 and the subsequent movement of PLA troops towards the border with Bhutan compelled Bhutan to shut down its trade office in Lhasa and to ban all trade with China.The tenuous link that they had with Tibet was snapped completely. This was also the time China annexed 6 Bhutanese enclaves in the Kailash Manasarovar region. Bhutan had administered these enclaves for over three centuries. The enclaves were gifted to Bhutan by the King of Ladakh in the seventeenth century. China has refused to give back the enclaves to Bhutan.

Bhutan has a 470 KM long border with China. The Himalayas separate the two countries but the border is ill defined and not formally demarcated. The population of the border areas knows exactly where the border is. It depended on whom they were paying taxes or grazing fees to. Talks with China to demarcate the Bhutan China border commenced in 1984. So far 24 rounds have been held, the last one being in August 2016. After the Doklam incident in June – August 2017, border talks have not been held. Vice Foreign Minister of China visited Thimphu in July 2018 and met the leaders of Bhutan. Border talks expected to be held in 2019 could not be held due to scheduling difficulties.

In 1988 and 1998, the two countries had agreed to maintain peace and tranquility in border areas, pending a final settlement on the boundary question and to maintain status quo on the boundary as before March 1959. While Bhutan has stuck to the agreements and has maintained the status quo, there have been repeated transgressions by China. A major one was the construction of a road into Doklam, which was completed around 2004 and the attempted extension of the road in 2017, when India had to intervene and stop the work. China has constantly nibbled and expanded presence in the ‘disputed’ pasture areas of the western sector.

In the course of border talks, two areas were identified as disputed: [a]Bayal Pasamlung area including Jakarlung in the middle sector, measuring 495Sq KMs. The area has rich pasture lands which the Bhutanese have been using traditionally; and [b] Doklam and adjoining areas to the East measuring 269 Sq. KMs, in the western sector. The adjoining areas are Charithang, Dramana, Shakatoe and Sinchilumba which also have rich pasture lands and measure 189 Sq. KMs. Doklam plateau is 89 Sq. KMs. In 1987, Military Intelligence of China had reportedly carried out a survey of the ground situation and concluded that the ‘disputed areas’ were under the control of Bhutan.
At one stage in the border talks, China offered a package deal: it agreed to forego its claim on 495 Sq. KMs in the middle sector [Bayal Pasamlung area] in exchange for Bhutan foregoing its claim on 269 Sq. KMs in the strategically important western sector [Doklam and adjoining areas]. It appears to be a generous gesture by China to its smaller neighbor, Bhutan, if one chooses to ignore the strategic importance of the western sector. Bhutan did not agree to the deal as it compromised its security interest.

About a decade back, the two countries decided to carry out joint field survey of disputed areas, since there was no forward movement in the talks on disputed areas. The survey was completed in Bayal Pasamlung in September 2013 by the expert group. Bhutanese delegation observed that China had altered the ground situation through construction work in the fortnight before the survey to strengthen their claim. Joint Field Survey of the western sector was completed in the summer of 2015. While the talks have remained stalemated, China has successfully nibbled away Bhutanese territory in many areas over the years.

Developments in Doklam plateau are a matter of serious concern to Bhutan and to India as well, since demarcation of the boundary in that area will determine the tri junction of the borders of India, Bhutan and China. China attempted to extend the road it had illegally built from Chumbi valley to the northern side of the plateau to the southern side in June 2017; this was stopped by India by sending in its forces to stop the work physically. The standoff was resolved on August 28, 2017, when the two sides agreed to withdraw from the stand off point which they did. China withdrew equipment also as agreed to. But the equipment was not moved out of Doklam plateau and the troops too stayed behind in another part of the plateau. Over the next few weeks China increased its presence on the plateau, brought in additional equipment and built helipads. For the first time in recent centuries there was human presence in Doklam during winter. Chinese troops have remained there ever since.

Till the summer of 2017, there were no permanent residents on the plateau. Bhutan used to operate a border post in the summer months and two Bhutanese shepherds used to bring their flock to the plateau for grazing, again in summer only. In winter there was no presence from Bhutan on the plateau due to harsh climate and heavy snowfall and the difficulty in reaching supplies to the plateau. China did not have presence in the plateau till the summer of 2017 and Chinese troops patrolled the plateau occasionally from Chumbi valley.

Satellite images indicate increased Chinese activity in the eastern part of the plateau. They have constructed a road to Torsa Nala well away from Doka La Indian post, which is on the ridge to the west of the plateau. It has so far been assumed that it is nearly impossible to cross the Torsa Nala since it is more like a deep gorge. But China seems determined to reach the Jampheri ridge at the southern edge of the Plateau, which will give it a strategic advantage at the expense of Bhutan and India. It appears that they are working on a plan to reach Jampheri ridge by crossing the Torsa Nala from the eastern side of the plateau.It is not clear how they plan to do it and whether they will succeed, but if they do manage to cross the Nala, it will be quite an achievement. Such a development would be of concern to Bhutan and India as Chinese presence on Jampheri would mean serious challenges to both the countries. From the Jampheri ridge, one can observe the movement along the Siliguri corridor as also many vital installations, which will be a huge advantage in troubled times.

Chinese efforts to reach the Jampheri ridge would mean that they are trying to present a fait accompli for the tri junction of the border to be at Gyamochen at the south west corner of the plateau. This would also mean that the Doklam plateau will fall within China. The tri junction as per India and Bhutan is at Batang La, about 6 kms to the north of Gyamochen and at the North West corner of the plateau which would make the plateau part of Bhutanese territory.

Given the recent activities of China, it would be prudent to assume that China will make every effort to reach Jampheri ridge and prepare ourselves to handle the situation. While Doklam is Bhutanese territory, the location of the tri junction is an issue on which India has direct interest.The location of the tri junction would depend on sovereignty over Doklam. As per the 2012 agreement between the Special Representatives of India and China, the tri junctions would be decided in consultation with the third country concerned, in this case, Bhutan. No such consultations have been held so far to determine the tri junction. Unilateral attempt by China to determine the tri junction through creeping occupation of Doklam plateau is a matter of serious security concern to Bhutan and India.

Article 2 of India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty of 2007 provides that Bhutan and India ‘shall cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests’. India and Bhutan should consult each other under this provision to decide on a strategy to handle any aggressive adventurism by China to reach Jampheri ridge, in violation of its separate agreements with both India and Bhutan to maintain status quo at the border/ in disputed areas. Various options like strengthening Bhutanese presence in the southern part of the plateau, possibilities of establishing presence on easier stretches of the Jampheri ridge etc., could be explored in such consultations and the approach to be adopted decided and acted upon in advance, before China makes any move. Such action by Bhutan and India would be a response to changes in status quo effected already by China.

China has opened a new front on the border with Bhutan by objecting to GEF funding for the 650 Sq. KMs Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary in eastern Bhutan at the 58th GEF Council meeting held on 2-3 June, 2020. The sanctuary has received funds from GEF in the past without any objection from China. It is not within or in the immediate vicinity of the disputed areas recognized hitherto by both Bhutan and China. It is in the eastern most part of Bhutan in Trashigong district. The sanctuary and the district are well away from the border with China and the tri junction point. The sanctuary is separated from Chinese territory by the district of Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh.

GEF approved the proposal finally, but at the request of China the following was included in the records: ’in light of the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary in the project ID 10561is located in the China-Bhutan disputed areas which is on the agenda of China-Bhutan boundary talk, China opposes and does not join the Council decision on this project’. In response, the Council member for Bhutan requested that the views of Bhutan be reflected as follows: ‘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’.

Bhutan is right; Sakteng never featured as disputed area in the border talks. The package deal offered by China, which was referred to earlier, was only with respect to the middle and western sectors and there was no mention of any disputed area in the eastern sector. In a briefing to Bhutanese Parliamentarians in December 2009, Secretary [International Borders] Late Dasho Pema Wangchuk referred only to the disputed areas in the middle and western sectors. It was the understanding on both sides that there was no dispute in the eastern sector. The tri junction on the east needs to be determined through consultations among all the three concerned countries and Sakteng will be well away from the tri junction.

About 60 years back, well before commencement of border talks, a map of China showed large parts of eastern Bhutan as part of China, but the subsequent editions of the map did not show the area as Chinese territory. In the 24 rounds of border talks, Sakteng never featured in the discussions as a disputed area. This reportedly prompted Bhutan to send a formal note verbale to China pointing out that Sakteng was never a disputed area. In some quarters the reference to Sakteng as a disputed area was assumed to be an innocent error by a non-foreign office official who participated in the meeting. This doubt was set at rest by the spokesman of the Foreign Ministry of China, who in a statement to the media 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’. For good measure the spokesman added, in an obvious reference to India, ‘a third party should not point fingers’ in the China-Bhutan border issue. In the GEF meeting, China referred only to Sakteng as a disputed area; the spokesperson of the foreign office in Beijing expanded the disputed area to the whole of the eastern sector, apart from the middle and western sectors.

The reference to disputes in the eastern sector is outlandish and not supported by the record of discussions on the border issue between Bhutan and China. Claim to Sakteng is more a strong political message than an attempt by China to covet that sanctuary. It is probably born out of their keenness to move the boundary talks forward on their terms and to build pressure on Bhutan to settle the border issue with China at the earliest. It is also a notice that if there is no forward movement the understandings reached earlier would unravel to Bhutan’s disadvantage. To India, the message is blunt: don’t interfere on the Bhutan-China boundary issue. This overlooks the fact that the security of Bhutan and India are interlinked and that India has an equal interest and stake in identifying the location of the tri junctions.

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