China on Tuesday said it had discussed its boundary dispute with Bhutan -- which last year flared up in the disputed Doklam region -- as a senior Chinese official paid a rare visit to the country.
China and Bhutan don't have formal diplomatic relations, but have held 24 rounds of talks on resolving their boundary issues. Holding the 25th round (which did not take place last year) in Beijing has also been discussed.
Relations were strained last year over the Doklam row, where Indian and Chinese troops faced off for 72 days on what India and Bhutan see as Bhutanese territory -- which China disputes. Beijing has strengthened its military presence and infrastructure on the strategically significant plateau abutting India, Bhutan and China.
India and China have since mended their ties. Prime Minister Modi visited China in April and June. This week's visit from Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou underlines that Beijing and Thimphu are also bringing ties back on track.
Bhutan laid out a red carpet for Kong (although he's below the rank of foreign minister) and the Chinese Foreign Ministry said he not only met with Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay and Foreign Minister Damcho Dorji, but also the King of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, and his father, Jigme Singye Wangchuck (the fourth king).
The two sides exchanged views on China Bhutan ties, and also the boundary issue and reached many agreements, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang told reporters. It's understood that the dispute over Doklam -- one of several areas where the border is disputed -- figured in the talks.
Beijing views India as an obstacle to a boundary settlement. In 1996, China offered a deal giving up 495 sq. km in the middle sector and a part of the 269 sq. km disputed in the western sector, in exchange for prized access to around 100 sq. km in Doklam near the trijunction, which would bring China closer to India's vulnerable 'chicken's neck' or Siliguri corridor.
Under the previous Jigme Thinley government, China and Bhutan discussed establishing formal ties. Beijing, however, views the current Tobgay administration as deepening relations with India. In June 2012, then-Chinese prime minister Wen Jiabao told the former Bhutan premier Jigmi Thinley that China was "ready to forge formal diplomatic relations on the basis of the five principles of peaceful coexistence".
This was also mentioned last year when Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi told his counterpart Dorji at the 24th round of border talks in Beijing that "an early establishment of diplomatic relations not only conforms to the common interests of the two countries, but is beneficial to safeguarding regional stability and development".
Last year, Chinese media published a series of commentaries attacking India's hegemony over Bhutan.
Also last year, Beijing said the China-Bhutan border issue "has nothing to do with India", and that "as a third party, India has no right to interfere in or impede the boundary talks between China and Bhutan, still less the right to make territorial claims on Bhutan's behalf".
"China," it added in a dig at India, "has all along respected Bhutan's sovereignty and independence."
During the Doklam row, Qiu Yonghui of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said that while "in recent decades, Bhutan has been under the care of India, especially energy and economy, Nepal also was, in the past."
"But now, Nepal has already gradually moved away from India's control. After Bhutan joined the United Nations in 1971, it has even publicly opposed India a few times. The clear trend is Bhutan will become more and more independent."
Sources: India Today