China on Saturday officially stated for the first time it has a boundary dispute with Bhutan in the eastern sector, a development with significant implications for India as the region borders Arunachal Pradesh, which is also claimed by Beijing, HT reported.

Between 1984 and 2016, Bhutan and China held twenty-four rounds of talks to address their border problem and, according to debates in the Bhutanese parliament and other public records of those meetings, the negotiations centered mainly on conflicts in the western and central border regions.

In a statement released to the Hindustan Times, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said that the China-Bhutan border had never been demarcated and there had been “long disputes over the eastern, central and western parts.” In the China-Bhutan border issue, the statement in Mandarin further said “a third party should not point fingers” – an apparent reference to India.

Beijing made this claim while objecting to a request to develop the Sakteng wildlife sanctuary in eastern Bhutan’s Trashigang district at an online meeting of the Global Environment Facility (GEF). Set up in 1992, GEF is a US-based global body to finance projects in the environment sector.
Bhutan objected to the Chinese claim, and the GEF council passed the project for funding.

The GEF, according to sources, rejected the Chinese claim and approved the project — but the views of both parties were reflected in the minutes, the Indian Express reported.

According to the published minutes of the council meeting, the Chinese representative said, “in light of the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary in the project ID 10561 is 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”.

To this, the Council member for the Constituency of India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives and Sri Lanka 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”.

People familiar with developments in Thimphu said on condition of anonymity that the eastern section has never figured in the border talks. “The two sides had said things had been narrowed down to the central and western sections and there was even talk of a package deal to settle the issue. If the Chinese position on the eastern section was legitimate, it should have been brought up earlier,” said one of the people cited above.

An expert from Bhutan who has tracked the talks added: “This is an entirely new claim. There are signed minutes of the meetings from both sides narrowing the disputes to only the western and central sections.”
There was no immediate reaction from Indian officials on China’s assertion. However, China’s claim came against the backdrop of the claim made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a visit to Ladakh on Friday that the “era of expansionism” was over – perceived as a signal to Beijing about New Delhi’s determination to defend its borders.

Without elaborating on the actual areas of dispute, the Chinese foreign ministry’s statement 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, and there are no new disputed areas.”

There hasn’t been any meeting between the two countries since 2017 when the Doklam border stand-off put it off. Sources said it was because of the “Scheduling issues” and then, now because of the pandemic <> situation. Since India already has a border dispute with Nepal on the Kalapani area, many in Delhi see this as China opening a new front.

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