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Jakarlung Valley dispute between Bhutan and China: Explained

Despite ongoing negotiations with Bhutan, China has persisted with unauthorized construction activities in Jakarlung Valley.

By Ground report
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Jakarlung Valley dispute between Bhutan and China: Explained

Despite ongoing negotiations with Bhutan to formally establish their shared border, China has persisted with unauthorized construction activities in North Bhutan’s Jakarlung Valley. Recent satellite imagery has revealed new Chinese construction within Bhutan’s territory, specifically in the remote Jakarlung Valley, part of the Beyul Khenpajong region, which are situated a mere 50 kilometers from Bhutan’s eastern frontier with Arunachal Pradesh.

According to a report of NDTV, Professor Robert Barnett, a Tibetan history specialist at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, has characterized the situation as China laying claim to a region based on modern herding practices—a claim without historical precedent. China has proceeded to unilaterally annex the territory, establishing villages, military barracks, and outposts, effectively altering the landscape and sovereignty of the area.

Jakarlung adjoins the Beyul Khenpajong, an important cultural and religious area for the Bhutanese. Thus, this case shows China very recently making a doubtful claim about an area of great cultural significance to a far less powerful neighbour. The neighbour, known to have few if any options for its response, is surely aware of this.

What's the whole matter?

The Jakarlung Valley dispute is a territorial disagreement between Bhutan and China. The valley is situated in the western part of Bhutan, near the border with China. The dispute arises from differing interpretations of the historical border agreements and the exact delineation of the boundary line.

The dispute over the Jakarlung Valley stems from differing interpretations of historical treaties and agreements. Bhutan claims the valley as an integral part of its territory based on the 17th-century Treaty of Wangdiphodrang and subsequent agreements. China, however, lays claim to the region based on its own historical maps and interpretations.

Chinese construction transforms Jakarlung Valley in Bhutan: from bare to over 100 quarters.

Bhutan claims sovereignty over the valley based on its historical administration of the area and the presence of Bhutanese communities. China, on the other hand, asserts its claim based on its interpretation of the border as defined by past treaties and agreements, which it argues includes the Jakarlung Valley within its territory.

In 1996, China proposed a land swap deal with Bhutan, offering to relinquish claims in the north in exchange for territory in the west, including parts of Doklam. This proposal has been met with hesitation by Bhutan, concerned about the strategic implications and potential consequences for its sensitive relationship with India.

Territorial exchange potential, Bhutan concerns

In a interview with The Hindu, Bhutan’s Foreign Minister Tshering did not dismiss the potential for a territorial exchange between Beijing and Thimphu. This could involve swapping land in regions such as Jakarlung for China relinquishing its claims on the southern Doklam plateau. During King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck’s official visit to India in November, the joint statement omitted specifics of the border discussions, but confirmed talks on comprehensive bilateral and regional matters.


The 2017 Doklam standoff saw Indian forces halt the construction of a Chinese road, marking a tense two-month confrontation. Tshering acknowledged Bhutan’s interest in ensuring satisfactory outcomes for both India and China in these negotiations.

India’s apprehensions about Chinese encroachment in Bhutan also involve the Amu Chu river valley, adjacent to Doklam. Post-standoff, China erected at least three villages in the valley. Any southward expansion could threaten the Siliguri Corridor, a vital link between India’s Northeast and the mainland, a scenario the Indian Army has repeatedly warned against.

Claude Arpi, a Tibetologist, highlighted that in May 2020, the PLA advanced in Eastern Ladakh, prompting a swift Indian response. However, Bhutan’s military lacks the capacity to counter PLA advancements or halt new village constructions.

What has China suggested and Bhutan's response?

China has proposed a “package solution” to resolve its long-standing boundary dispute with Bhutan. This proposal harks back to an offer made in the 1990s, suggesting a land swap involving northern and western areas. However, Bhutan, mindful of India’s concerns, has previously rejected such an offer.

Initially, Bhutan countered China’s claims by securing funding from the Global Environment Facility (GEF), despite China’s objections. The Bhutanese Embassy in Delhi further issued a démarche to the Chinese Embassy, as Bhutan does not maintain diplomatic relations with China.

Despite the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs repeatedly asserting otherwise, Bhutan maintains a firm stance. They indicate that they will address all disputes in the upcoming China-Bhutan talks. Various reasons have kept these talks on hold since 2016, including the Doklam stand-off, Bhutanese elections, and the recent pandemic.

Analysts view China’s claims as a pressure tactic to expedite the scheduling of the next meeting with Bhutan and to gain leverage in the boundary discussions. Concurrently, India is grappling with Chinese aggression along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

The claim over the Sakteng region could serve as a diversionary tactic by China or a means to drive a wedge between India and Bhutan. More critically, by asserting claims over Bhutan’s eastern boundary, China aims to bolster its territorial claims over Arunachal Pradesh.

Concerns for India

The 2017 incursion by China into the Doklam plateau, a territory claimed by Bhutan, resulted in a standoff with the Indian Army. Despite the India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty of 2007, the Indian military remains effectively in charge of safeguarding Bhutan against threats like those posed by the Chinese military.

The original 1949 treaty permitted India to influence Bhutan's foreign policy and defense matters, but they revised it in 2007 to honor Bhutan's sovereignty concerns.

The updated treaty commits both nations to work closely on matters of mutual national interest and prevent the use of their territories for activities detrimental to each other's national security. People perceive China's stance, insisting that third parties should not interfere in its border negotiations with Bhutan, as a veiled reference to India.

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