Wednesday, September 22, 2021

China Wants Military Advantage Over India & Is ‘Replicating’ Its SCS Strategy In Bhutan – Analyst

As border tensions between India and China continue to simmer, an Indian analyst says that China is adopting the same strategy with Bhutan what it did in the South China Sea (SCS) — reacting to reports that the communist nation has set up villages within Bhutan’s territory.

The latest controversy comes amid the ongoing border dispute between India and China in Ladakh.

Leading American magazine Foreign Policy earlier this month reported on the establishment of villages by China in Bhutan’s territory. Days later, China has refuted these claims, stating them to be a ploy to drive a wedge between Bhutan and China and inflame Indian and Bhutanese public sentiments against China.

Offering a Chinese perspective to the allegations, state-owned CGTN maintains that no such complaints have been lodged by Bhutan.

The report claims that it is India, with its hegemonic ambitions over South Asia, which is standing in the way of a border deal between China and Bhutan.

What Does The Report Say

The Foreign Policy report titled, ‘China is building entire villages in another country’s territory’ has caused quite a buzz.

While China maintains that Gyalaphug village is in the south of Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), it is, in fact, in Bhutanese territory. It is said to be a part of the Lhuntse district in northern Bhutan. Stretching over an area of 232 sq-miles, this area has been claimed repeatedly by the Chinese since the early 1980s.

According to the report, in April 2020, Wu Yingjie, the Communist Party Secretary of the TAR, visited Gyalaphug where roads, a power plant, two CPC buildings, a communication base, warehouse, military, and police outposts have been established.

Known traditionally as the Beyul Khenpajong, it is one of the most sacred locations in Bhutan, where the majority population follows Tibetan Buddhist traditions. It is now one of the three new villages, constructed by China in parts of Lhodrak in the TAR, but are actually in north Bhutan, the report claimed.

Expert Opinion

“If these reports are true, then China is now doing in Bhutan what it did in the South China Sea,” Kalpit A. Mankikar, a China analyst with Observer Research Foundation told The EurAsian Times.

The template is: Create civilian settlements, then incrementally build. This makes it tougher for any dispute resolution. The 10th Expert Group Meeting (EGM) on Bhutan-China Boundary was held in Kunming, China, in April 2021. 

“The two sides agreed to continue to maintain peace and tranquility in the border areas pending a final settlement of the boundary issue. But Bhutan has not reacted to this development (Chinese building a village in its territory). It will be interesting to see the Bhutanese position,” Mankikar added.

According to Mankikar, India, which is already in a border conflict with China, must stay alert.

“India must watch these developments closely because, some of the areas being claimed by China (ex. Sakteng in Bhutan) is not even contiguous with the Bhutan-China boundary, but deep inside Bhutan adjoining (India’s) Arunachal Pradesh, which China has laid claim over,” he maintained.

China-Bhutan Territorial Disputes

China shares a contiguous border of 470 kilometers with Bhutan although it has never been formally demarcated. Since 1984, the two countries have held regular talks on border and security issues.

In 1998, China signed the first and so far its only treaty with Bhutan. According to this, China recognized Bhutan’s sovereignty and its territorial integrity. It also agreed not to undertake any unilateral action to change the status quo on the border.

However, this has not been the case. Official Chinese maps showed the Beyul and Menchuma valleys as part of Bhutan till the 1980s. Even official Chinese tourist maps and gazetteers published in the late 1990s located the valleys in Bhutan.

In 2016, the 24th round of border talks between the two countries was held in Beijing. The talks coincided with the commencement of Chinese construction work in Beyul, in clear contravention of its 1998 treaty with Bhutan.

Today, China controls all of the Menchuma Valley and Beyul, which together constitute one percent of Bhutan’s territory.

Doklam and Pangda

Tensions flared up in 2017 at Doklam, a less than 100 sq. km area located at the trijunction between India, Bhutan, and China. The Chinese attempts to construct a road in the area, towards the Bhutanese army camp near the Jampheri Ridge, led to a standoff with the Indian Army.

Both Bhutan and India claimed that the Jampheri Ridge is located in the Bhutanese territory. The stand-off began, when the Indian troops came to the aid of their Bhutanese counterparts in the area.

Doklam is a vulnerable point for India due to its strategic location close to the Siliguri Corridor, which connects India’s northeastern region.

In 2020, an Indian media report cited the establishment of a village in Pangda. It said the village located close to Doklam was two kilometers within the Bhutanese territory.

This claim was also dismissed by the Chinese. Terming the map cited by the Indian media as wrong, China stated that the Pangda village located on the west bank of the Yadong River is well within its territory.

Part of A Larger Campaign?

The Foreign Policy report states that these repeated new constructions are a part of a larger drive by Chinese President Xi Jinping, initiated in 2017, to fortify the Tibetan borderlands.

It mentions that the aim of the Chinese is not to settle in Bhutan, rather to force Bhutan to cede the territory that China wants elsewhere, to obtain a military advantage over India.

India maintains a close bilateral relation with Bhutan and remains influential over its foreign, defense, and commerce policies. On its part, Beijing wants to establish a diplomatic presence in Bhutan, to offset India’s influence.

In recent years, China has undertaken its occasional road building and forward patrolling to new confrontational heights. The June 2020 Galwan Valley clash in India’s eastern Ladakh is the most recent example of Beijing’s expansionist move even as China has been locked in maritime disputes with several countries in Asia for many years. 

Written by Anupama Ghosh, PhD

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