Bhutan saw the visit of the Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou from 22nd to 24th July, 2018 accompanied by the Chinese Ambassador to India Luo Zhaohui and other officials.
The Vice Foreign Minister during his visit met with His Majesty The King, His Majesty The Fourth King, Lyonchhen Tshering Tobgay and the Foreign Minister Lyonpo Damcho Dorji.
A release from the Foreign Ministry said that the Vice Foreign Minister met with the Foreign Minister and discussed matters of mutual interest.
The visit by the Vice Minister is his first to Bhutan since he was appointed in January 2018.
The visit is significant, as it is the first official Chinese visit since the ‘standoff’ from June to August 2017.
Following the standoff in 2017, the annual boundary talks between Bhutan-China did not happen last year, though Bhutanese officials pointed out that there have been instances in the past where certain years have been skipped.
The inability to have the boundary talks was linked to the standoff and there was an air of uncertainty on the future course. This was also relevant as in the absence of diplomatic relations, Bhutan and China’s official contact and communication is mostly in the context of the boundary talks.
However, the Vice Minister’s three-day visit and meetings now proves that Bhutan-China ties are back on an even keel to the pre-standoff period.
The Vice Minister’s visit is also significant as the Chinese side in the annual boundary talks is always led by the Vice Foreign Minister. Boundary talks between the two countries is expected to happen after the 2018 polls are over, though the dates are yet to be set.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry press release issued in Mandarin is an important indicator of how China or the Chinese leadership currently views its relationship with Bhutan.
The Chinese release says that that the Vice Minister Kong Xuanyou conveyed the cordial greetings from the Chinese leaders to the leaders of Bhutan. It says China attaches great importance to the traditional and friendly relations with Bhutan and respects Bhutan’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity as always.
It says China respects Bhutan’s political system and development path chosen according to its own national conditions, and respects Bhutan’s independent foreign policy of peace.
The release goes on to say that China is willing to work to maintain high-level contacts, expand pragmatic cooperation, strengthen multilateral communication and coordination, and achieve common development on the basis of mutual respect and mutual benefit.
China invited Bhutan to take active participation in the “Belt and Road Initiative” and thereby share China’s development dividend
The release, touching on the boundary negotiation, said that the two sides should continue to push forward the border negotiations, abide by the principled consensus reached, jointly safeguard peace and tranquility in the border areas, and create positive conditions for the final settlement of the border issue
This part of the release shows that the boundary talks which did not happen in 2017 will be taken up after the 2018 polls, as the Bhutanese side in the border talks is led by the Foreign Minister of Bhutan.
However, despite the official nature of the Vice Minister’s visit- some regional media outlets speculated on the visit and even its timing.
The regional media outlets were not aware that the Vice Minister’s visit to Bhutan is a biannual affair given that the Vice Minister heads the boundary talks which are held alternately in Bhutan and China every year.
On the contrary, there would be real reason for worry if the Vice minister did not show up as it would mean that the boundary talks are not happening.
The timing of the Vice Minister’s visit was also not out of the ordinary as Bhutan has been continuously hosting high level diplomatic visits. Prior to the Chinese Vice Minister, Bhutan saw an official visit by Thailand’s Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha who was here from July 19th to 20th.
This was preceded by a three-day visit of the Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono from 22nd to 24th June 2018. This was a first ever visit to Bhutan by a Japanese Foreign Minister.
The above are apart from many other continuous visits by foreign leaders, dignitaries and diplomats to Bhutan.
Also, while India and China improved their ties in the months after the standoff with various meetings, including the Wuhan summit between the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping, there was no public and official diplomatic outreach between Bhutan and China.
The Vice Minister’s visit and what he had to say, in that sense, shows that the ties are back to normal between Bhutan and China.