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International relations

In jab at India, China reiterates claim over Bhutan nature park

Beijing's expanding territorial assertions poised to raise tensions with New Delhi

The Sakteng wildlife sanctuary lies adjacent to the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, a sensitive region that China also claims. (Photo from the wildlife sanctuary's Facebook account)

BEIJING -- China has doubled down on its territorial claim on a nature preserve in Bhutan, a move seen by some as a thinly veiled message over its border disputes with India.

Bhutan's Sakteng wildlife sanctuary borders both India and China in the eastern part of the country. However, the boundary has "yet to be demarcated," Wang Wenbin, China's foreign ministry spokesperson, said Tuesday.

The claim against India's neighbor comes as Beijing is in a standoff with New Delhi over disputed territories along the India-China border as the two countries square off for influence on the continent.

China first called out its claims to this part of Bhutan, a small Himalayan kingdom with a population of less than 1 million, last month during a meeting of Global Environment Facility, a multinational fund. The Chinese representative objected to awarding a grant to Sakteng, claiming that the location is still under dispute.

Sakteng covers a 650 sq. km stretch in the Himalayas. The nature reserve lies adjacent to the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, a sensitive region that China also claims.

Bhutan, an ally of India, has no diplomatic relations with China. It was believed that China's formal territorial claims on Bhutan were limited to the Doklam region in the west, as well as in the central part of the country.

"For a long period, there has been disputes over the east, the middle and the west," Wang said.

In India, Wang's comments sparked speculation that China is attempting to rattle New Delhi through Bhutan, a development that could potentially increase cross-border tensions.

In 2017, Doklam was the scene of a two-month border standoff between the Chinese army and Indian troops that came at Bhutan's request. This June, a clash between the two armies in India's northern Ladakh region produced the first deaths of Indian personnel in 45 years, which fueled strong anti-China sentiment among Indians.

Indian and Chinese military commanders agreed last month to pull troops from Ladakh. On July 5, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi reaffirmed with Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval the goal of disengaging front-line troops as soon as possible.

Chinese and Indian military commanders met again last week. The two armies have abided by the agreement by gradually withdrawing from the border, according to media reports.

However, sparks continue to fly between the two countries. The Global Times, a paper affiliated with China's Communist Party, reported Tuesday that Indian soldiers engaged in a large-scale military exercise near the area where the clash took place.

On Friday, Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh visited Ladakh.

"I want to assure that no power in the world can touch even one inch of India's land," Singh said in an address to soldiers.

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