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China’s Ploy in Bhutan: Grabbing Territories by Building Infrastructure

Sanjeeb Bikram Sah

July 23, 2021

11 MIN READ

China’s Ploy in Bhutan: Grabbing Territories by Building Infrastructure
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As a matter of strategy, for nearly a decade, China has steadily injected its own resources in contested geographies to assert its claim to such territories.

In the regions bordering Tibet through settlements of relative affluence, China has been effectively putting to use the salami-slicing technique to not only strengthen its position along the disputed frontiers but also to gradually cut off piece-by-piece the other nations’ territory.

The Chinese actions reflect nibbling like a silkworm initially and later swallowing like a whale when the prey is unaware.

On gaining control over Tibet, this is precisely what China has been up to on multiple fronts. The Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) currently shares a long international border with India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Myanmar.

Amongst these, China has had land boundary disagreements with both India and Bhutan, which have not been settled despite prolonged consultations over years.

In fact, many satellite imagery descriptions claim that China is involved in the construction of new villages along the border with India to challenge the latter’s territorial assertions, particularly around Arunachal Pradesh.

The above Chinese strategy is aptly supported by an important Chinese policy paper on the TAR, titled Tibet since 1951: Liberation, Development, and Prosperity which has an entire section dedicated to Developing border areas and improving people’s lives, and was released by the State Council Information Office.

In this, it has been categorically stated that border villages in the faraway areas are linked to highways and being provided with improved access to modern communication in an attempt to better the local people’s living conditions.

With the Chinese infrastructural buildup in the area, towns and administrative villages near the tri-junction have direct access to highways thereby integrating these areas with the region which has feeder airports like the Bamda Airport in Qamdo, Mainling Airport in Nyingchi, Peace Airport in Xigaze, and the Gunsa Airport in Ngari.

Paying special attention to border development, the Communist Party of China’s Central Committee has enhanced the financial contribution to this segment since 2012 and increased the year-by-year expenditure in these areas with a focus on infrastructure creation, including water, electricity, roads, telecommunication networks, and augmenting the strength of the inhabiting population.

In 2017, an ambitious letter was alleged to have been penned down by Chinese President, Mr. Xi Jinping to the various Tibetan herdsmen living near the Tibet-Arunachal Pradesh border to lay down their apprehensions and preserve the Chinese territory.

Clearly, it was identified as being part of a larger Chinese propaganda mechanism to enhance pressures on counterpart countries who claim their rights to the same territories.

Consequently, there has also been an upgrade in the erection of Chinese military facilities, including heliports and missile bases along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), particularly in the aftermath of the 2017 standoff at Doklam.

India officially supports Bhutan’s claim over Doklam which lies at a tri-junction between India, Bhutan and China.

Reinforcing the Tibetan borderlands needs to be understood as part of China’s long-running attempts to outmaneuver its neighbour India & nations that are friendly to it, in this case, Bhutan.

With the Chinese infrastructural buildup in the area, towns and administrative villages near the tri-junction have direct access to highways thereby integrating these areas with the region which has feeder airports like the Bamda Airport in Qamdo, Mainling Airport in Nyingchi, Peace Airport in Xigaze, and the Gunsa Airport in Ngari.

A leading geopolitical intelligence platform has even reported that a greater level of activity and advanced build-up by the Chinese is visible from the airbases near the Indian borders.

Furthermore, China’s shortage of airbases close to the LAC compels it to focus more on augmenting its airpower through these airports located in otherwise difficult terrains.

Sometime ago, Maxar Technologies’, a US-based satellite operator revealed through its images that there has been significant Chinese construction activity along the Torsa River valley area in Bhutan wherein China has constructed the Pangda Village well inside Bhutanese territory with military bunkers.

However, Chinese media rebuffed these claims stating that these are developments in South Tibet’s internal infrastructure & are being unnecessarily hyped in the foreign media.

Further, it is important to note that China has also constructed a new village on the banks of the Tsari Chu River in the name of a national poverty alleviation program near Arunachal Pradesh, an area under dispute with India.

A recent foreign policy report highlights that in TAR, new villages are routinely being built by China. The area is also witnessing some high profile visits.

Bhutan, however has refused to be bogged down by the Chinese pressure and has rejected the huge economic aid, bribes and packages being offered in various forms to settle the matter.

The Communist Party Secretary of the TAR, Mr. Wu Yingjie is known to have inspected one of the newly constructed villages, called Gyalaphug which is technically under Bhutan across the international border.

Post the construction and the settlement, China has been asserting that the 232-square-mile village has been under its control since the early 1980s, though it is internationally recognized as a portion of the Lhuntse district in northern Bhutan.

The Chinese official’s visit went largely unnoticed by the world despite the fact that the territory traditionally belonged to Bhutan.

Reinforcing the Tibetan borderlands needs to be understood as part of China’s long-running attempts to outmaneuver its neighbour India & nations that are friendly to it, in this case, Bhutan.

In an effort to grab more strategic territories & ensure China’s advantage militarily, China has also been trying to force the Bhutanese Government to cede territory.

In addition, it mirrors the tried and tested tactics being deployed in the South China Sea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Tibet.

Since the 1990s, China has been proposing to give up 495 square kilometres of its claims in the northern part of Bhutan if Bhutan yields 269 square kilometres of its territory in the strategic parts of Doklam, Charithang, Sinchulungpa, Dramana, Shakhatoe & Sakteng.

Bhutan, however has refused to be bogged down by the Chinese pressure and has rejected the huge economic aid, bribes and packages being offered in various forms to settle the matter.

(Source: R Barnett, China Is Building Entire Villages in Another Country’s Territory, Foreign Policy, 7 May 2021, https:foreignpolicy.com)

Lately, the Chinese have resorted to asserting new claims to the Beyul and the Menchuma Valley as well, which were shown as parts of Bhutan even on official Chinese maps until the 1980s.

Despite these claims, paradoxically, China through its official channel describes its relations with Bhutan as that of two friendly neighbours connected by mountains and rivers.

Beyul gives China a foothold barely just 62 miles from India’s strategic Siliguri Corridor. The Tibetan nomads and their families that have traditionally been engaged in grazing in this border region are now being increasingly employed in a planned & deliberate manner to reinforce China’s claim to the area.

Along with winning over the local people with economic perks, benefits and infrastructure creation, China is also strategically settling Chinese villagers in these settlements, building military outposts in order to assert its legitimacy over these otherwise illegal occupations.

It is pertinent to note that the report brought out by Foreign Policy underlines that Bhutan is in no position to compete or contest with China.

The same point is also echoed by Hal Brands. China is very well aware that it is breaching a 1998 accord to change the status quo of this disputed area.

As such, Bhutan and China do not have diplomatic relations. However, given the current state of global geopolitics and Bhutan’s friendly association with its southern neighbour, one cannot deny the fact that the Tibetan factor along with the proximity to India are crucial in determining the state of affairs of Bhutan vis-a-vis China.

Chinese presence is like fait accompli driven towards creating facts favourable to its claims on the ground by calmly invading another sovereign nation’s area, referring it to be a grey zone.

Essentially, the act is about gently sending troops to the remote terrain of another sovereign state & deliberately preventing unambiguous fleeting actions that have the possibility of triggering a full-blown conflict.

Increasingly, nation states neighbouring China are beginning to feel the heat as the greed of the Chinese to usurp territories of another country seems to be never ending.

As was mentioned earlier, the new claims to otherwise Bhutanese territories that featured in Chinese maps such as the Gyalaphug construction site is a matter of high concern with strategic implications.

A similar scenario has been also been playing out with respect to the Chinese claims to the Bhutanese Sakteng wildlife reserve which ironically does not even have a border with China.

Historically, Bhutan has a long association with Tibet with cultural and religious ties along with sharing a common border with China.

As such, Bhutan and China do not have diplomatic relations. However, given the current state of global geopolitics and Bhutan’s friendly association with its southern neighbour, one cannot deny the fact that the Tibetan factor along with the proximity to India are crucial in determining the state of affairs of Bhutan vis-a-vis China.

Rather than usurping territories of other countries and imposing its reign in a dominant fashion, China, taking a cue from Bhutan’s happiness quotient should actually draw from its value system & emphasis on holistic living to benefit its own people in an integrated & fulfilling manner.

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