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China’s Himalayan Build-Up Extends to Disputed Bhutan Border

Bhutanese people wearing face masks as precaution against coronavirus walk through a street in Thimpu, Bhutan, Monday, April 12, 2021. The tiny Himalayan kingdom is wedged between India and China.
Bhutanese people wearing face masks as precaution against coronavirus walk through a street in Thimpu, Bhutan, Monday, April 12, 2021. The tiny Himalayan kingdom is wedged between India and China.

China’s construction of villages and settlements along its Himalayan borders has extended to disputed territories in Bhutan, a small country wedged between India and China, according to satellite images.

Like the India-China border, China’s 477 kilometers long frontier with Bhutan is also unsettled and the latest construction is seen as Beijing’s bid to consolidate its claims along a strategic plateau that would give it leverage in its territorial disputes with India, according to analysts.

“The construction of these settlements started sometime during the second half of 2020 and accelerated through 2021. They all appear to be designed in a uniform chalet-type configuration,” Damien Symon, a geospatial intelligence researcher with Israel-based Intel Labs told VOA.

“This zone where the Chinese are currently developing land is riddled with harsh terrain,” Symon said. “It is in disputed areas or areas within Bhutan’s own territory, currently unoccupied and remote from the Bhutanese side.”

The settlements have been built about 30 kilometers from Doklam Plateau, where India and China had a tense stand-off in 2017 when Indian soldiers blocked the construction of a road by China. It was resolved when Beijing agreed to maintain the status quo in the area.

However, analysts say the new settlements indicate China simply changed its strategy by reinforcing its presence in the vicinity.

The plateau lies at the junction of the borders of India, Bhutan and China close to a narrow strip of Indian territory called “Chicken’s Neck,” a vital corridor that connects India to states in its northeast. For decades, the area to the north of this corridor was largely uninhabited.

“What stands out is that China’s expansionism has not spared its smallest neighbor Bhutan. That speaks for itself. It is attempting to grab strategic areas that provide some vantage to its army,” says Brahma Chellaney, an author on geo-strategic affairs and Professor at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi. “The settlements effectively open up a new military axis against India.”

Although of serious concern to India, New Delhi, which has been preoccupied with an ongoing standoff with China for the last 20 months in a different part of its Himalayan border with China, has not commented.

Bhutan, a country of 800,000 people and without the capacity to police its borders, has also not responded to reports of the Chinese settlements along its border. “It is Bhutan’s policy not to talk about boundary issues in the public,” Bhutan’s foreign ministry said in response to a Reuters inquiry.

Beijing and its relatively small neighbor reached an agreement in October to expedite the settlement of their boundary dispute that had made virtually no progress over three and a half decades. The roadmap, the Bhutanese foreign ministry had said, will provide fresh impetus to the boundary talks.

Following its signing, China’s state media said that India is not happy with the agreement. New Delhi in a cautious response had said that it had noted the signing of the agreement.

“By building these border settlements they are pressuring Bhutan to accede to Chinese demands. What they encroach upon becomes Chinese territory, that is classic Chinese strategy,” Chellaney said. “India faces a serious dilemma because what is happening impinges on its security. But when Bhutan is silent, how can India speak up? And that too on behalf of Bhutan?”

China last year also raised new claims to a huge swath of land in Bhutan encompassing a wildlife sanctuary that adjoins the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims as South Tibet.

New Delhi is wary over a Bhutan-China border deal that would undermine its interests. But for Bhutan settling its borders with China is emerging as a priority as it worries about being caught in the ongoing India-China military tensions which are at their highest in decades. And while there is much at stake for both India and Bhutan, neither has much leverage, analysts say.

“Bhutan is anxious for a resolution but unfortunately the resolution would come at their expense. As they have done in other cases, what China has done is create new realities on the ground and now wants to negotiate based on what they have already done,” said Harsh Pant, the director of research at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.

For India, already worried over the influence that China has built in neighboring South Asian countries like Sri Lanka and Nepal, the situation presents a new challenge. Bhutan has for years closely coordinated its foreign policy with India, which accounts for 80% of its trade.

“What they are doing is to put pressure on a small country on India’s periphery to cede sovereignty to China and to signal to other countries also in India’s vicinity that it is China that is dictating the terms of engagement,” Pant said.

Since 2017, China has built about 600 villages along its border with India to fortify its Himalayan frontier — analysts say these are dual use villages that can also be used by its military. Satellite images last year showed one of these villages lies in an area that is disputed with India.

The construction activity by Beijing in the Bhutanese borderlands is not over, according to the latest satellite data. “Recent images show work is ongoing, even though heavy snowfall and inclement weather. We have also seen more earth being cleared and the presence of heavy machinery which indicates more developments are yet to come,” Symon said.