China has refused to let go of its claim on the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary in far-eastern Bhutan, days after Thimpu issued a demarche to Beijing’s embassy in New Delhi, The Hindu reported on Sunday. China and Bhutan do not have embassies in each other’s countries.

China has included Bhutan’s “eastern sectors” in the boundary dispute between the two countries for the first time, the newspaper reported. Bhutan’s “eastern sectors” are close to Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims is part of its territory as “South Tibet”.

In a statement to the Hindustan Times last week, China’s Foreign Ministry said the boundary between the two countries has never been delimited. “There have been disputes over the eastern, central and western sectors for a long time,” the ministry had said. In a tangential reference to India, the Chinese Foreign Ministry added that “a third party should not point fingers” in the China-Bhutan border dispute.

In June, China had attempted to stop funding to the Sakteng sanctuary from the United Nations Development Programme’s Global Environment Facility, claiming that the sanctuary is “disputed territory”. The facility is a United States-based global body to finance projects in the environment sector, The Indian Express reported on Monday.

Bhutan had objected to China’s claim over the sanctuary last month, and the Global Environmental Facility council had passed the project for funding. Bhutan was represented on the council by World Bank Executive Director Aparna Subramani. Subramani represents Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Sri Lanka.

To China’s claim, Subramani said: “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.”

China’s decision to make public its boundary dispute with Bhutan is an indirect way of putting pressure on New Delhi, which is Thimpu’s ally, the Hindustan Times reported. China also hopes to internationalise the border dispute, the newspaper said.

Timing of Beijing’s claim important, says expert

Constantino Xavier, a fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings India think-tank, said that the timing chosen by Beijing to raise the matter – amid tensions between India and China over a clash between the armies of the two countries along the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh – is important. “Even while this Chinese claim may not be new, the timing and the multilateral setting of Beijing’s statement reflect intent to put pressure on Bhutan and India, seeking to create a wedge between both countries,” Xavier said.

The Chinese media and academics have often blamed India for the lack of diplomatic ties between Beijing and Thimpu. “As far as I know, the China-Bhutan boundary issue was almost resolved 20 years ago,” Lin Minwang, assistant dean at the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai said. “The two sides have a common understanding on how to sign the final agreement. But for Bhutan, it is difficult because of the India factor.”

At least 20 Indian soldiers had died and 76 wounded in the clash between India and China in Galwan Valley on the Ladakh border on June 15. China also admitted to suffering casualties, but did not assign a number. Following the incident, there were protests in India against China and Chinese-made goods. On June 29, India blocked 59 China-linked apps, including TikTok, WeChat and Cam Scanner, though it cited security reasons for doing so. Earlier that month, Railways cancelled its contract with a Chinese firm to carry out work on the Kanpur-Deen Dayal Upadhyay stretch, citing poor performance.