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Bhutan and China report further progress in expedited border talks, but no breakthrough

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(TibetanReview.net, May28’23) – In talks whose outcome would be of particular interest to India, Bhutan and China have said they had made more progress in implementing a “three-step roadmap” they had earlier agreed on towards resolving their boundary dispute. This followed their 12th Expert Group Meeting (EGM) between the two sides in Thimphu, capital of Bhutan. The talks were held this week and announced on May 26.

The latest EGM, which oversees the actual boundary talks, was held just four months after the 11th round of EGM talks was held in the Chinese city of Kunming.

Progress or not, the 12th EGM did not 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 Sino-India military standoff at Doklam. However, the two sides did say they agreed to hold them “as soon as possible at mutually convenient dates.”

Besides, it is seen as noteworthy that while there was a two-year gap between the 10th round of the EGM held in Apr 2021 and the 11th round of the EGM held in Jan 2023, the 12th round has followed within months, possibly indicating 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, noted thehindu.com May 27.

The current round of “expedited” talks also followed Bhutan King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck’s visit to India in April, when the latest developments in talks with China are understood to have been discussed.

The report said experts in India had 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.

The swap, which has long been sought by China, if acceded to, is seen as giving China commanding Doklam advantage over India in the event of a conflict.

The report said that 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 tri-junction 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 was stated to have travelled to Thimphu for discussions.

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,” the report noted. It raised speculations and concerns in the Indian media.

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