Beijing has decided to strengthen its commitment to declare a Bhutanese wildlife sanctuary along their border as a disputed territory after Bhutan sent China a demarche against its claims.
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) in a statement to the media in Beijing 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.”
The MFA was responding to questions about China’s attempt in June to stop funding for the Sakteng sanctuary from the U.N. Development Programme’s Global Environment Facility (GEF), on the grounds that it was “disputed” territory.
At the 58th Global Environment Facility Council held recently, China raised objections to the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary project and said that it was in a disputed area between China and Bhutan. Sakteng lies in a zone of Bhutan that borders Arunachal Pradesh and China. Responding to China’s claim, Bhutan strongly objected to the references made by China against its sovereignty.
According to written records, there has been no mention of Eastern Bhutan, where Sakteng is based, that borders Arunachal Pradesh, in 24 previous rounds of boundary negotiations held between the two countries between 1984 and 2016.
In July 2018, Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou visited Bhutan, and met with the Bhutanese King, Prime Minister and other officials, but the 25th round of talks has not yet taken place. According to sources, the talks could not be held in 2019 due to scheduling difficulties, and the Coronavirus pandemic has delayed them further this year.
A source said, “Bhutan has sent a strong message to China,” adding that Bhutan’s response was also given through the GEF council meeting where China had raised the issue. At the time, Bhutan had assumed that since the Chinese representative was not a Foreign Ministry official, but a Deputy Director General (DDG) in the Chinese Financial and Monetary Cooperation Division, the decision to stop the grant, which failed, was not thought through.
According to the GEF Council Chairman’s summary released on June 16, Aparna Subramani, the World Bank official representing Bhutan, as well as India, Bangladesh, Maldives and Sri Lanka, had said that “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 hoped its response would close the matter,” the source added.
According to Bhutanese experts, the claim on Sakteng will open new fronts of negotiation when the next round of boundary talks are held.