With tensions still high along the India-China border, landlocked Bhutan is struggling to maintain its territory and keep both Asian powerhouses happy.
As Bhutan prepares for border talks with Beijing, the Himalayan kingdom has told India that it would not recognize China’s claims to the Doklam plateau in the discussions, people familiar with the situation said.
In 2017, India’s military intervened on Bhutan’s behalf to stop China from building a road in the disputed area overlooking a narrow strip of land that connects India’s northeastern states with the rest of the country.
China has long offered Bhutan control of areas on their disputed northern border, which has been officially closed for decades, provided it hands over Doklam, the people said.
In the past few years Beijing has stepped up pressure on Bhutan to resolve the issue, with satellite data collected by Indian intelligence and Bhutanese officials showing China has built military bases and entire villages in areas claimed by Bhutan, they said.
However, Bhutan is wary of doing anything that could prompt it to get caught in the middle of a conflict between India and China, the people added.
Bhutan plans to offer Beijing the prospect of eventual full diplomatic relations in return for demarcating the northern border, allowing it to sidestep the issue of Doklam while stopping Chinese encroachment in other areas, they said.
It is unclear whether China would agree to that.
Bhutan and China have “mechanisms for border talks and experts meeting,” a Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman said, adding that more discussions are planned after they agreed in October to a landmark road map to accelerate border talks.
Territorial disputes between all three countries would be resolved through negotiations, the spokesman added.
The Indian Ministry of External Affairs and the Bhutanese embassy in New Delhi declined to comment on the substance of the border talks involving China.
An Indian Ministry of External Affairs spokesman last month said that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government had “noted the signing of the memorandum of understanding” between China and Bhutan, adding that it was holding its own boundary negotiations with Beijing.
Landlocked Bhutan is China’s only neighbor that does not have diplomatic relations with Beijing, and it allowed India to “guide” its foreign policy until the two signed a new friendship treaty in 2007.
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