Bhutan demarches China on its claim to Sakteng Sanctuary, Beijing reiterates position

Bhutan’s foreign ministry issued a demarche to the Chinese embassy in New Delhi for the claims made by Beijing over Sakteng Wildlife sanctuary, situated in eastern Bhutan.

The protest was lodged by the Royal Embassy of Bhutan in New Delhi. While Thimphu and Beijing do not have formal diplomatic relations, the two sides have been in talks to resolve the border issues between the two countries and demarcate the boundary.

Bhutan’s western and middle sector have been in dispute with China. However, the eastern sector has not been part of the boundary talks and China had not claimed rights over Sakteng wildlife sanctuary earlier.

The recent claim was made at the 58th meeting of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) Council where China tried to “oppose” funding to a project for the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary situated in Bhutan saying that it was “disputed” territory.

Bhutan sent a strong note saying, “Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary is an integral and sovereign territory of Bhutan.”

But, according to media reports, on Saturday, the Chinese foreign ministry has doubled down on its claim by reiterating what it said at the GEF council meet.

The ministry said there “have been disputes over the eastern, central and western sections for a long time”.

Adding, “a third party should not point fingers” in the China-Bhutan border issue referring to India and Indian media, according to reports.

Interestingly, the Eastern sector was never raised in many years of boundary talks between 1984 and 2016. After the initial years, in most of the 24 rounds of talks that both sides have held, 269 sq km in West & 495 sq km in North-Central Bhutan, are the areas that have been under discussion.

This eastern sector of Bhutan has a large Bhutanese population, traditional Dzongs (Medieval Fortresses) and two Bhutanese districts since time immemorial.

But, with these fresh claims, China may raise eastern Bhutan in the next round of talks which are long overdue.

The talks got stalled after 2016 because of Doklam border tensions and now because of the coronavirus pandemic. But, both sides would be working towards the next round of boundary talks.

The Chinese side is led by a Vice Foreign Minister & boundary talks are held alternately in both countries.

Tenzing Lamsang, Editor of The Bhutanese newspaper in a tweet said, “Such claims undermine the boundary talks and wild claims on either side by officials will only exacerbate issues as Bhutan too can lay claims far north. Ultimately Bhutan and China need to resolve its boundary disputes or such false claims will come up as a pressure tactic.”

On June 2, when the project wise discussion was taking place, Chinese Council member Zhongjing Wang, Deputy Director, International Economic and Financial Cooperation Department, China; raised objection to the project in Bhutan asking it to be formally noted and duly attested in the footnote.

But, the next day when the final summary was to be adopted, the Chinese representative said that it no longer was an objection that China would abstain from, instead he said that Beijing was “opposed” to the project and that it should be made part of the summary.

This is when the Indian officer speaking on behalf of Bhutan, Aparna Subramani, Executive Director, Indian Administrative Service, The World Bank; intervened and said that the claim is not “unchallenged” and it would not be fair to go ahead with the Chinese version unless there is clarity on Bhutan’s stand.

When Naoko Ishii, GEF CEO and Chairperson of the 58th meeting of the GEF Council, tried to reach a middle ground by proposing that views of both the countries be added to the highlights rather than the summary as “objection” rather that “opposition”. But, the Chinese was adamant since he did not have mandate to clear it and Beijing’s instructions were that it was to be opposed and be part of the summary.

While all other issues were adopted this one issue was discussed a day later and finally the consensus of the council was that Bhutan would get funds for the project and it was cleared under Bhutan’s name.

The objections were added in the highlights as ‘Agenda Item 10 Summary of the Chair’

“The text of the Summary of the Chair enjoyed consensus. One Council Member proposed an amendment to Footnote 3. This amendment did not receive consensus. An alternative proposal was made that was accepted. The Summary of the Chair was adopted.”

The Council Member for the China constituency requested that its view be reflected as follows: “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”.

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”.

Bhutan rejected China’s claims and the council adopted the funding for Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary.

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