The construction of hundreds of border villages by China in the Himalayas is not limited to its frontier with India and the Indian territory under its occupation. Bhutan, too, is at the receiving end of China’s creeping invasion.
China claims large parts of Bhutan’s territory, dispersed all along the border. It lays claim to two areas in the north — Beyul Khenpajong and Menchuma Valley.
In the east, Beijing has laid claims to Sakteng, which it can access only through the Indian state of Arunachal, claimed by it as ‘South Tibet’. Sakteng is not contiguous with Tibet or any other Bhutanese territory claimed by China.
In the west, near India’s Sikkim and the Siliguri Corridor, China claims four contiguous areas belonging to Bhutan as its own, one of which is Doklam (other three being Charithang, Sinchulungpa and Dramana). It was China’s attempt to build a road across the Doklam plateau that triggered the 73-day long stand off between the Indian Army and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in 2017.
Over the years, China has been occupying Bhutanese territory by building roads and military outposts in the areas that it lays claim to.
In 2015, China announced that it had established a village called Gyalaphug in Beyul Khenpajong, an area in north Bhutan that Beijing claims.
The construction of border villages has intensified since 2017, when China launched its “xiaokang [well off] villages” programme. These villages, a large number of which have already been built, are coming up all along the Tibetan frontier, including Indian and Bhutanese territory that China claims as its own.
Recent satellite imagery shows China is building at least three such villages, including Gyalaphug, in Bhutanese territory, and plans to construct yet another settlement in the kingdom’s territory is afloat. Infrastructure to support these villages and sustain the PLA’s presence in Bhutan’s territory is also coming up.
China formally opened Gyalaphug village in 2018, allowing new residents to settle. By 2021, the village has been significantly expanded, including the construction of four more blocks, each containing five identical homes.
By one account, China has built around “66 miles (106 kilometers) of new roads, a small hydropower station, two Communist Party administrative centers, a disaster relief warehouse, a communications base, five military or police outposts, and what are believed to be a major signals tower, a satellite receiving station, a military base, and up to six security sites and outposts” just in the territory it claims in north Bhutan.
In the territory China lays claim to in west Bhutan, it has built a village named Pangda. Roads and other infrastructure has also come up to support the village, which is not far from Doklam. The village, located around 2.5 km inside Bhutanese territory from the border with China, is one of the 628 xiaokang villages, as is Gyalaphug.
These villages will serve as permeant watch posts for the PLA. The inhabitants of these villages, whom the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) calls the “defenders of sacred land and constructors of happy homes”, will be additional eyes and ears for the PLA in areas where China's claims overlap with those of Bhutan and India.
The CCP has made no secret of the construction of villages along the Himalayan frontier or the aim it wants to achieve with it. In 2018, Zhuang Yan, deputy secretary of the Party Committee of Tibet, said that the border villages were being developed to ensure "consolidation of border areas and border security".
“This is to implement … the central policies of improving support to border residents, stabilising and consolidating the border,” the Chinese plan says.
To attract its loyalists and cadre, the CCP is investing in the construction of infrastructure such as road network and power grid. Around 30.1 billion yuan or nearly $4.6 billion were earmarked in 2017 for the construction of new homes and infrastructure for transport, energy, water and communication and facilities for education, health and culture under the programme.
The project has received consistent attention from the CCP's top echelons.
In 2018, Che Dalha, the chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region, visited the Yumai village, home to sisters who wrote to Xi Jinping, to take stock of the construction of the border village. In August 2020, only a few weeks after the clashes between the Indian Army and the PLA in eastern Ladakh’s Galwan Valley, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi made a visit to border areas in Tibet to inspect “infrastructure building and the construction of villages”.
A new Chinese village that has come up in Arunachal’s Upper Subansiri has been built under this programme. While the area where the village has come up is part of Arunachal Pradesh, it has been under Chinese control since 1959. Construction of the village will improve Beijing’s control over the remote area.
But in Bhutan, China’s plan is goes beyond land grab.
In negotiations over the boundary issue which began in 1984, Beijing has offered to give up on its claims on 495 square km of territory in the north if Thimphu relents on 269 square km of its territory in the west, including Doklam. Bhutan, sensitive to India’s security concerns linked to Doklam, has rejected this offer.
China’s interest in Doklam comes from the plateau’s proximity to the Siliguri Corridor, a 22-km wide passage that connects India’s northeast with the rest of the country. The corridor — known also as the 'Chicken’s Neck' — is seen as a strategic vulnerability, a choke point that China could exploit in the event of war.
In 2017, China started building a road on the Doklam plateau headed towards the Jampheri ridge. From this ridge starts the descent into the hills that lead into the Siliguri Corridor. Access to the ridge will bring China closer to the corridor, making it vulnerable, and this was why the India sent troops into Bhutanese territory to stop the construction of the road.
But given Bhutan’s refusal to trade Doklam for settlement on territory in the north, China has adopted a strategy of needling Thimphu with transgressions and occupation of its territory to arm-twist it into accepting the offer.
A part of China’s strategy is to create an impression in Bhutan that it is unable to protect its interests by striking a deal with Beijing because of India’s security concerns linked to Doklam. It has been trying to create a situation where India is seen as the hidden hand behind Bhutan’s refusal to trade its claim on Doklam for concessions in other areas to inflame public sentiments in Bhutan against India. This, China believes, will force Bhutan to consider its offer to trade Doklam for a settlement in other areas and create diplomatic space for it in Thimphu.
Also Read: Why China Is Building Hundreds Of Border Villages Along The Himalayan Frontier With India
As you are no doubt aware, Swarajya is a media product that is directly dependent on support from its readers in the form of subscriptions. We do not have the muscle and backing of a large media conglomerate nor are we playing for the large advertisement sweep-stake.
Our business model is you and your subscription. And in challenging times like these, we need your support now more than ever.
We deliver over 10 - 15 high quality articles with expert insights and views. From 7AM in the morning to 10PM late night we operate to ensure you, the reader, get to see what is just right.
Becoming a Patron or a subscriber for as little as Rs 1200/year is the best way you can support our efforts.