It was supposed to be Sujatha Singh’s solo bilateral visit as new foreign secretary—a traditional first destination abroad on taking office. But instead of travelling alone, she had a surprise senior companion, national security advisor, Shivshankar Menon. When local Bhutanese media reported on his presence on Aug 9-10, India gave the impression that Menon had gone to smoothen the strain in the relations caused by the recent subsidy cut. But, sources have told Express that NSA’s ‘main mission’ was to brief and advise the Bhutanese government on how to handle the border talks with China, which have deep strategic implications for India’s security. About two weeks later, Bhutan’s foreign minister Rinzim Dorje sat down with a senior Chinese official to hold the 21st round of boundary talks this Thursday – which has seen a shift in emphasis from the disputed north-western, close to Siliguri corridor, to the central parts of Bhutan.
According to sources, NSA spoke to his interlocutors about the current status of the India-China border talks. But, with the political leadership in Bhutan being brand-new, Menon took the opportunity of the Foreign Secretary’s visit to share Indian “experience” and knowledge of Chinese negotiation tactics to advice Thimpu on the way forward.
The visit had symbolic importance, especially to the Bhutanese, who were puzzled over the fuel subsidy cut during the last days of election campaign. New Delhi had to make extraordinary efforts to change the speculative narrative during the highly charged time to make it clear that it was a purely bureaucratic lapse. But, the addition of NSA to the delegation did raise several eyebrows, as it ramped up level of the visit. As per the Bhutanese foreign ministry, the decision at the border talks with their giant northern neighbour was to hold a joint technical field survey next month in one of the disputed areas, Pasamlung in central sector.
“This is very significant, as it shows that there is a shift from looking at the north-western areas, which have high strategic value for India to the central areas,” said Medha Bisht, assistant professor at South Asian University with specialization in Bhutan’s foreign relations. She said that the ‘shift’ raised questions on whether an understanding had been reached on the north-western areas. “These talks are done in secrecy, so their outcomes are not known. Does it mean that they have settled some land in the north-western region? It comes at a time of reports of Chinese flag being flown from some of those dispute areas,” said Bisht. A package deal that China had offered to Bhutan in 1997 proposed of swap the disputed central parts around 495 square kilometre, in exchange for Thimpu giving up claim to the North-western areas of 269 square kilometer.
This had, of course, raised alarm bells in New Delhi as the disputed north-western areas that Beijing coveted is adjacent to the strategic tri-junction of Chumbi valley, where the three nations come together. India’s influence in Bhutan is acknowledged by China, which has been especially commented upon by state-run Chinese media in the last one year. China does not have direct diplomatic relations with Bhutan, but last year Bhutanese PM Jigme Y Thinley met on the sidelines of a United Nations summit in Rio with Chinese premier Wen Jiabao. Bhutanese PM Tshering Tobgay is elected from the Haa constituency, which contains disputed land with China. He is heading for New Delhi next week.