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Why China is building villages in Bhutan

By Ajai Shukla
May 18, 2021 07:38 IST
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'Its aim is to force the Bhutanese government to cede territory that China wants elsewhere in Bhutan to give Beijing a military advantage in its struggle with New Delhi.'
Ajai Shukla reports.

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi with Bhutan's Kind Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck in Thimpu, August 17, 2019. Photograph: ANI Photo

Foreign Policy magazine, in a major investigative article, revealed that the Chinese government in Tibet, in an initiative directed personally by President Xi Jinping since 2017, is setting up villages in northern Bhutan in disputed territory that China also claims.

The article, China Is Building Entire Villages in Another Country's Territory, describes how, since 2015, the Tibetan administration has constructed 'a previously unnoticed network of roads, buildings, and military outposts… deep in a sacred valley in Bhutan'.

This area where the Chinese have encroached is known as the Beyul Khenpajong. It is one of about seven holy areas in the Eastern Himalayas that the legendary tantric master, Guru Padmasambhava, identified in the eighth century as a refuge for the virtuous.

In October 2015, China, ignoring the fact that it was occupying disputed territory, announced the establishment of a new village called Gyalaphug in the south of the Tibet autonomous region.

Since then, by incentivising yak graziers and border people to occupy the border, this was gradually built up by the Chinese into a larger settlement. In April 2020, the Communist party secretary in Tibet, Wu Yingjie, made the arduous trek to visit the new village.

The article states that since 2015, China has stepped up construction, establishing three villages, seven roads and at least five military or police outposts in the Beyul and the Menchuma Valley. These are documented in official Chinese reports and videos.

Beijing covets this territory simply because China intends to offer the disputed area of Beyul Khenpajong to Bhutan in exchange for another disputed pocket around Doklam, in western Bhutan.

India considers the Doklam area of vital military importance as it is less than 100 kilometres from the strategic Siliguri corridor, a 25-km-wide strip of land that connects India's north eastern states to the Indo-Gangetic heartland. Bhutan has always been careful of India's concerns vis-a-vis Doklam.

'China doesn't need the land it is settling in Bhutan: Its aim is to force the Bhutanese government to cede territory that China wants elsewhere in Bhutan to give Beijing a military advantage in its struggle with New Delhi,' writes Robert Barnett, the author of the Foreign Policy article.

The four areas that China claims in the west of Bhutan including the Doklam plateau, which is at the tri-junction of Indian, Bhutan and China. Doklam was the site of a 73-day face-off between Indian and Chinese troops in the summer of 2017, when the former objected to Chinese road building activities there.

In addition, there are three disputed areas in north Bhutan and one area in east Bhutan called Sakteng.

Since 1990, Beijing has been offering Thimphu a deal in which China would give up its claim to 495 sq km in the north, provided Bhutan yields 269 sq km of its territory in the west, including Doklam as well as Charithang, Sinchulungpa, Dramana, and Shakhatoe.

The 495 sq km in north Bhutan that China is offering to give up include the Beyul Khenpajong and Menchuma Valley.

'The settlement of an entire area within another country goes far beyond the forward patrolling and occasional road-building that led to war with India in 1962, military clashes in 1967 and 1987, and the deaths of 24 Chinese and Indian soldiers in 2020,' notes Barnett.

Gyalaphug is not the only area where the Chinese have constructed cross-border settlements. The Menchuma Valley has for centuries been regarded as the frontier between Bhutan and Tibet. Today, Chinese maps place the border four miles to the south of the tradition frontier, bringing the new border just 6 km from Singye Dzong, another historic site within Bhutan.

When China was established in 1949, Beijing disputed the colonial-era borders it inherited with most of its Himalayan neighbours.

China gradually renounced some of its maximalist historical claims -- such as those made in the 19th-century by Qing emperors and repeated by Mao Zedong in the 1930s -- to sovereignty over Bhutan and other Himalayan States.

In December 1998, China signed a formal agreement with Bhutan recognising its sovereignty and its territorial integrity.

However, many parts of the Sino-Bhutan border remain disputed. Since 1984, China and Bhutan have held 24 rounds of talks to settle their disagreements; in April they agreed to hold the 25th round soon.

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Ajai Shukla
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