China setting up villages on borders with India, Bhutan

Even as the standoff with India in Ladakh continues, China has silently been setting up villages near the India-Bhutan border and populating them. The country has established a village 2 km within Bhutan’s territory, very close to Doklam where the Chinese and Indian militaries had a tense standoff in 2017. Recently, a satellite imagery has emerged of China setting up villages in hitherto uninhabited stretches on its disputed borders with India and Bhutan, particularly in Arunachal Pradesh. Media reports citing experts said that the move could be part of Beijing’s attempts to cement its territorial claims.

Imagery acquired by the open-source intelligence analyst who uses the name @detresfa on Twitter on Sunday showed what appeared to be five new border villages built near Bum La, the border pass located between Cona county in Tibet Autonomous Region and Tawang district in Arunachal Pradesh. The image shows at least 3 villages near Bum La pass, close to the tri-junction between India, China and Bhutan, and the move follows the upgrading and construction of Chinese military facilities, including heliports and missile bases, all along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the aftermath of the 2017 standoff at Doklam.

Satellite imagery from Planet Labs, a private US company, was cited by NDTV to show that at least three villages have come up in an area about five kilometres from Bum La. The villages are located about a kilometre from each other and connected by new roads. The imagery suggested construction of these villages, which are on the Chinese side of the LAC, had continued even as thousands of Indian and Chinese troops faced off in Ladakh sector of the LAC. The satellite images acquired from Planet Labs, show that a single village with more than 20 structures was constructed by February 17, 2020. The second image, dated November 20, 2020 shows an addition of 3 additional enclaves with at least 50 structures.

In a tweet, @detresfa said there is evidence of “new villages and accommodation similar to what was seen in Pangda village, Bhutan” in the vicinity of Bum La. The relocation of people to these villages “promises China with better border surveillance and patrols through a network of herders,” the tweet said.

A fewdays back, a Chinese journalist has sparked controversy after tweeting, and then deleting, the map of a new village of the country. Satellite imagery analysts claimed the village was two kilometres inside Bhutanese territory and near the Doklam Plateau, but Bhutan has contested the analysis, asserting that there is no Chinese encroachment on its territory. “There is no Chinese village on Bhutanese territory,” Major General V. Namgyel, Bhutan’s envoy to India. Asked if the village was on Chinese land, he repeated that all he can say is that there are no Chinese villages on Bhutanese land.

Many analysts says that Beijing disputes the boundary between India and China in this region and the new constructions here could be a significant step towards reinforcing its territorial claims along the Arunachal Pradesh frontier.

China-watcher Dr. Brahma Chellaney says, “China has been using a strategy of settling Han Chinese and Tibetan members of the Communist Party along the Indian border to strengthen its territorial claims and escalate border intrusions. Like it used fisherman in the South China Sea, China uses civilian resources, herders and grazers as the tip of the spear to intrude into Indian patrolled Himalayan areas”.

Sim Tack, a Belgium-based security analyst for Force Analysis, said the new villages were clearly part of a strategy to “push Chinese presence and strengthen claims on disputed areas”. “We have seen the relocation of civilian populations into sparsely populated and disputed border regions by other countries, for example, by Morocco in Western Sahara. The Chinese are doing the same, so that they can infringe on the border and potentially build a case for their territorial claims,” he said.

By Karishma Gwalani

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