Prime Minister Dasho Dr Lotay Tshering (File Picture)

Prime Minister says no change in stance on border talks and nothing new was said

This is after Indian media outlets misrepresented his interview to a Belgian newspaper and blew it out of proportion

The Prime Minister Dasho Dr Lotay Tshering told The Bhutanese that he had said nothing new in his statements to the Belgian paper, La Libre, over Doklam and the Bhutan-China boundary talks, and there is also no change in position by Bhutan.

The Prime Minister said, “I have said nothing new and there is no change in position.” He reasserted that there is nothing new.

The PM’s statement comes after a slew of prominent Indian media outlets in the electronic, print and digital space misunderstood, and then went on to misrepresent the PM’s interview alleging that Bhutan had changed its position on Doklam in the talks and that China was being given a new role. They also alleged that this is not in India’s interest.

A panicked but wrong group think by these outlets led them to blow the issue out of proportion for Indian viewers and readers.

The PM during his recent Europe tour had given an interview to journalist Sabine Verhest of the Belgian paper, La Libre, which is a popular daily newspaper that publishes in French.

The interview was a general one with 10 questions that touched on various areas like Gross National Happiness Policy, Bhutan’s graduation to a middle income status, public debt, budgetary resources, climate change and elections.

The last two questions were on the ongoing Bhutan-China boundary talks.

Sabine, alluding to the 2017 Doklam standoff, asked the Prime Minister where things are at today.

The PM replied to Sabine saying, ‘Doklam is a junction point between India, China and Bhutan. It is not up to Bhutan alone to solve the problem. We are three. There is no big or small country, there are three equal countries, each counting for a third. We are ready. As soon as the other two parties are also ready, we can discuss. India and China have problems all along their border. We are therefore waiting to see how they will resolve their differences.”

The Indian media outlets tried to spin the above quote or parts of it to show that the Bhutanese PM had given China an equal say in the boundary negotiations and had thus said something new indicating a change in position. 

The PM told The Bhutanese that the three countries were mentioned as the three countries meet at the tri junction area.

This is a geographical fact.

In the long history of the boundary talks since 1984 the PM’s statement is nothing new as the Bhutan-China boundary talks have officially been between Bhutan and China and neither country can unilaterally resolve the boundary issue.

In fact, after the start of the boundary talks from 1984 onwards the two countries signed the Guiding Principles on the Settlement of Boundary Issues in 1988 and the Agreement on Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the border areas in 1998. These two agreements according to Bhutan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade form the basis for the boundary negotiation between Bhutan and China.

A former Bhutanese civil servant Benu Prasad Dahal who is currently researching Bhutan-China relations at the Government and International Relations Department of Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia pointed out that the PM saying China has an equal say is not new as it is written into the 1998 agreement.

Article 3 of the 1998 agreement says, ‘The two sides agree to maintain peace and tranquility in their border areas pending a final settlement of the boundary question, and to maintain status quo on the boundary as before March 1959. They will also refrain from taking any unilateral action to change the status quo of the boundary.”

Under this clause neither Bhutan or China can unilaterally resolve the boundary issue which translated into simple english means both sides have an equal say.

Even the earlier 1988 agreement has a similar clause.

In fact, during the 2017 standoff, Bhutan’s Foreign Ministry issued a demarche to the Chinese Embassy in Delhi citing the two agreements and how no unilateral action should be taken to change the status quo of the boundary.

The stress of the PM on the three countries being equal was meant to stress the importance and equality of Bhutan to China and India in the talks despite it being the smallest country among the three. This aspect was also completely misunderstood by the Indian media outlets.

Belgian journalist Sabine Verhest who interviewed the Bhutanese PM and published the article is also surprised by the interpretation of her article by the Indian media and the resulting controversy.

Sabine said, “It did not seem to me that Bhutan had changed its position on Doklam. I don’t quite understand the controversy over what he said on the issue. He only confirmed that this issue would be settled between the three countries involved in the trijunction – Bhutan, India and China –when each is ready. He also made it clear that, in his view, each had equal weight in the negotiation.”

In fact, if there is one new thing new in the PM’s statement then it is the mention of India as a third party to the dispute.

This will raise eyebrows in the diplomatic circles in Thimphu as officially the boundary talks are only between Bhutan and China with no official role for India.

The PM may have wanted to indicate that Bhutan would respect India’s security concerns in Doklam and keep it in the loop, but his statement went even beyond that.

The Indian media outlets instead of picking up on this as a positive for India went on the war path over the mention of China in the Bhutan–China boundary talks.

The other aspect that also generated controversy is the Bhutanese PM’s statements to Sabine that there is no Chinese intrusion into Bhutan.

However, here the Indian news outlets ignored the proper context in terms of the question asked by Sabine and the complete answer given by the PM.

Sabine while talking about the alleged intrusions asks when the talks are supposed to demarcate the Bhutan–China border.

The PM starts by saying that certain territories are not yet demarcated and they still have to discuss it and draw a line.

The Indian media outlets ignored this beginning part of the answer which essentially says the agreed final international border is yet to be demarcated in certain disputed areas.

Satellite experts and Indian journalists have been having a field day comparing Chinese activities and the map of Bhutan. However, what they do not know is that the current map of Bhutan fully incorporates all the disputed territories within its boundaries even though the boundary in these disputed places is not yet mutually agreed to by both sides in these areas.

This is why Chinese maps in the same areas show a different alignment from Bhutanese maps and this is where the dispute arises.

The PM in his reply to the Belgian journalist had said that last month a Bhutanese delegation visited China and are now awaiting the arrival in Bhutan of a Chinese technical team. The PM told the Belgian paper that after one or two meetings they will probably be able to draw a line.

The announcement by the PM that Bhutan and China are in the advanced stages of the boundary talks should not come as a surprise as on 14th October 2021 the Foreign Minister of Bhutan Lyonpo Dasho (Dr) Tandi Dorji and the Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs of China, Wu Jianghao signed the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the Royal Government of Bhutan and the Government of the People’s Republic of China on the Three-Step Roadmap for Expediting the Bhutan-China Boundary Negotiations.

Bhutan’s Foreign Ministry issued a press release on this that was widely reported in the India media and the then Foreign Secretary Kinga Singye had said the signing of the MoU on the Three-Step Roadmap’s purpose is to expedite the Bhutan-China boundary negotiations after 37 years and 24 rounds of boundary talks.

At the time in October 2021 he had said the expert group meeting was held in April 2020 in Kunming and the two sides discussed details on how to expedite the boundary negotiations and in the process an agreement was reached between the two sides on the Three-Step Roadmap.

This was put up for approval to the two governments and the following the approval of the two governments the MoU was signed on 14th October 2021.

The Three-Step Roadmap would build on the 1988 Guiding Principles and help to expedite the ongoing boundary negotiations. The MoU was to provide a fresh impetus to the Boundary Talks.

The then Foreign Secretary had said the three stop road map is a positive development in the Bhutan- China boundary talks as it will enable the two sides to have more focused and systematic discussions on the boundary in the spirit of goodwill, understanding, and accommodation. He had said it will enable to conduct the negotiations more systemically and frequently.

A release at the time said it is expected that the implementation of this Roadmap in a spirit of goodwill, understanding and accommodation will bring the boundary negotiations to a successful conclusion that is acceptable to both sides 

Though India is officially not a party to the talks it would have been kept in the loop all along and according to various experts this paper talked to, Bhutan would never conclude a border deal with China that impinges on India’s security interests.

Meanwhile, many Bhutanese upset by the wrong interpretation of the PM’s remarks by Indian media outlets took to social media and particularly the Facebook comments section of these stories.

A Sonam Penjor wrote, “As far as I can read, the Bhutanese PM was explaining that there are three parties to resolve the Doklam dispute being China, India and Bhutan and while Bhutan maybe a very small country compared to the other two we are equal. I don’t think there is anything here which makes India’s or Bhutan’s position weaker in that explanation to the Belgian reporter.”

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