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Bhutan talks about speeding up border settlement amid China’s settlement-buildings in its territory

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(TibetanReview.net, Dec02’23) – Although Bhutan previously denied it, China has continued its unsanctioned programme of settlement construction across the contested border in the kingdom’s Himalayan north, reported chathamhouse.org Dec 1, citing satellite imagery from Sep 2023. The report felt that Bhutan may concede these construction areas in exchange for a settlement deal, which will likely also involve the two countries establishing diplomatic ties.

The report said the new outposts in Bhutan’s remote Jakarlung Valley, part of the Beyul Khenpajong region, may become permanent Chinese territory after an announcement on a border deal between the two countries expected soon.

It is thought that Bhutan, in a major concession, will give up the land that China has seized in both Jakarlung and the neighbouring Menchuma Valley, the report said.

The report noted that in Oct 2023, Tandi Dorji became the first Bhutanese foreign minister to travel to Beijing when he met Chinese Vice President Han Zheng, who described the long-running border talks a an ‘historic opportunity’. In the same month, Lotay Tshering, Bhutan’s prime minister at the time, had told The Hindu newspaper: ‘We hope to see a line being drawn – this side Bhutan and that side China.’

The latest images of Jakarlung Valley are stated to show a Chinese settlement under construction and an extensive road network built by the Chinese in the area.

A satellite image of Jakarlung Valley in Bhutan’s Beyul Khenpajong region taken on 2 July, 2022, showing existing Chinese settlements and road network. (Courtesy: Planet Labs PBC)

Robert Barnett, a Tibet expert at SOAS, University of London, who has watched the border dispute closely, has been quoted as having told The World Today: ‘There have been two major waves of [Chinese] construction in the Jakarlung. We know that the Chinese authorities are energetically recruiting Tibetans to move to these new locations and putting a lot of money into major construction efforts there.’

This was stated to follow China’s building work observed in the Menchuma Valley.

The Menchuma Valley had been under de facto Chinese control for some time, with Bhutanese herders and Royal Bhutanese Army patrols allegedly denied access, Barnett was stated to have reported in 2021.

Troops belonging to China’s People’s Liberation Army are also believed to be stationed in or near the settlements in both areas.

Beyul Khenpajong is an area of great significance for the Bhutanese, with their royal family tracing its ancestral heritage to the mountainous region. Yet the government has been powerless to stop Chinese settlement there, the report noted.

China and Bhutan signed a ‘three-step road map’ in 2020 to resolve their border dispute (across Chinese occupied Tibet), and Thimphu will hope that any deal will give Bhutan a demarcated border and end Chinese intrusion into its territory, the report noted.

Any package deal is expected to involve the establishment of diplomatic relationship between Bhutan and China. Until as recently as 2007, New Delhi guided Thimphu’s foreign policy in exchange for free-trade and security arrangements, the report noted.

India’s main concern is the territory in Bhutan’s west which China disputes, including the Doklam plateau. The plateau is close to India’s Siliguri Corridor, which lies between Nepal and Bangladesh and connects continental India to its seven eastern states.

In this connection, Tshering has said as recently as Oct 2023: ‘It will be in Bhutan’s interest to make sure [India and China] are happy with the decisions we make [regarding border negotiations].’

Bhutan has also said any deal over Doklam should involve India too, as it is an interested party.

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