Recent satellite images, dated less than a month ago, reveal a concerning acceleration in China's unauthorised encroachment into northeast Bhutan.
Construction of townships along a river valley in Beyul Khenpajong, an area of profound cultural significance, is rapidly progressing, leaving Bhutan with limited options to counter China's aggressive expansion as reported by NDTV.
Professor Robert Barnett, an expert on Tibetan history at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), emphasises China's dubious claims over a culturally significant area, exploiting the limited power of its smaller neighbour to respond effectively.
Despite ongoing border talks between China and Bhutan, Beijing's construction activities persist in Beyul Khenpajong and the nearby Jakarlung region.
As seen in satellite images, the extensive construction indicates that China might be too entrenched to consider withdrawing from these encroached areas.
Bhutan's Ambassador to India, Major General Vetsop Namgyel (retired), underscores Bhutan's commitment to uphold and safeguard its territorial interests during boundary negotiations.
Satellite imagery experts describe the constructed settlements in Beyul Khenpajong as "large format settlements capable of housing hundreds," comprising over 200 structures.
The transformation, evident in images from November 2020 to December 2023, depicts the carving of valleys and hillsides to accommodate a significant road network linking the enclaves.
China's occupation of Bhutanese territory also raises security concerns for India.
The 2017 Doklam plateau standoff and subsequent Chinese incursions into Bhutanese territory near Doklam suggest a strategic move to extend China's presence southward, threatening the Siliguri corridor, a vital land strip connecting India's northeast with the rest of the country.
Dr Brahma Chellaney, a prominent China-watcher in India, suggests that China's construction activity in Bhutan aims to undermine the Bhutan-India relationship and coerce Thimphu into yielding to Chinese demands.
The added pressure on Bhutan, facing a Chinese "package deal," links the return of territories to accepting Chinese claims in other regions.
Bhutan's attempts to resolve the issue are complicated by its treaty obligations, diplomatic ties, and geostrategic priorities, particularly regarding India.
Despite Bhutan's recent engagement with China and efforts to settle border issues, India remains concerned about the evolving dynamics of Bhutan's ties with China.
The shift in Bhutan's strategic orientation toward China poses challenges for India, requiring careful consideration and potential reassessment of security agreements between New Delhi and Thimphu.
Bhuvan Krishna is Staff Writer at Swarajya.
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