Bhutan and China on Thursday signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on a “three-step roadmap” for expediting negotiations on their boundary dispute, prompting a cautious response from India against the backdrop of the standoff on the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

Bhutan’s foreign minister Tandi Dorji and China’s assistant foreign minister Wu Jianghao signed the MoU during a virtual ceremony. China’s ambassador to India, Sun Weidong, and Bhutan’s envoy to India, Maj Gen Vetsop Namgyel, also joined the online event.

“We have noted the signing of the MoU between Bhutan and China today [Thursday],” external affairs ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said during a regular news briefing when he was asked about the development.

“You are aware that Bhutan and China have been holding boundary negotiations since 1984. India has similarly been holding boundary negotiations with China,” he said, without offering a response to a query on whether Bhutan had kept India in the loop about the agreement with China.

The agreement was signed four years after Indian and Chinese troops were involved in a 73-day face-off within Bhutanese territory at Doklam. That face-off began in June 2017 after India sent in its troops to prevent the construction of roads and infrastructure by Chinese troops in violation of agreements between Bhutan and China.

Given the extremely close coordination between India and Bhutan on foreign policy issues, it is unlikely that New Delhi was caught off-guard by Thursday’s development. Experts said India’s cautious response was understandable in view of the implications the MoU could have for New Delhi’s already fraught relations with Beijing because of the LAC standoff.

China does not have a diplomatic presence in Bhutan’s capital Thimphu, and the Chinese embassy in New Delhi coordinates relations between the two sides.

Following the standoff with India in eastern Ladakh, China claimed for the first time in July 2020 that it had a boundary dispute with Bhutan in the eastern sector, a region that borders Arunachal Pradesh, which is also claimed by Beijing.

Bhutan and China have held 24 rounds of talks between 1984 and 2016 to settle their border issue and, according to discussions in the Bhutanese parliament and other public records of these meetings, these discussions have only focused on disputes in the western and central sections of the boundary. The two sides have also held 10 meetings of an expert group.

A statement issued by Bhutan’s foreign ministry described the MoU signed on Thursday as a “Three-Step Roadmap for Expediting the Bhutan-China Boundary Negotiations” that will “provide a fresh impetus to the boundary talks”.

The statement said: “During the 10th Expert Group Meeting in Kunming in April this year, the two sides agreed on a Three-Step Roadmap that will build on the 1988 Guiding Principles and help to expedite the ongoing boundary negotiations.”

It added, “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.”

The negotiations so far between Bhutan and China were conducted in a “spirit of understanding and accommodation” and “guided by the 1988 Joint Communique on the Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the Boundary and the 1998 Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace, Tranquillity and status quo in the Bhutan-China Border Areas”.

In response to separate questions on the LAC standoff, Bagchi said India expects the Chinese side to work towards the speedy resolution of all remaining issues in eastern Ladakh while fully abiding by bilateral agreements and protocols. The situation on the LAC was due to China’s unilateral attempts to alter the status quo in violation of bilateral agreements, he said.

At the 13th meeting of senior army commanders on October 10, India put forward constructive suggestions for a resolution at the remaining friction points, but the Chinese side was not agreeable and did not make any forward-looking proposals, he said. The two sides had agreed to maintain communications and stability on the ground, which was a “positive development”, he added.

The resolution of the remaining friction points in Ladakh and restoration of peace and tranquillity will facilitate progress in the overall bilateral relations, Bagchi said.