With an eye on Doklam, Chinese nibble at disputed territory in north Bhutan - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Sunday 9 May 2021

With an eye on Doklam, Chinese nibble at disputed territory in north Bhutan

China is occupying the disputed Beyul Khenpajong area in north Bhutan, to pressure Thimphu to hand over the strategic Doklam area in west Bhutan (Map: courtesy Foreign Policy magazine)

By Ajai Shukla

Business Standard, 10th May 21


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


The article, titled “China Is Building Entire Villages in Another Country’s Territory”, describes how, since 2015, the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) authorities rapidly 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 announced the establishment of a new village called Gyalaphug, without mentioning that it was located in disputed territory. 


For 20 years, four yak herders from the nearest village on the Chinese side had lived there year-round in a simple hut. But once the Chinese completed a road to the village, over the Himalayan crest line, a larger settlement was rapidly built up. In April 2020, the Communist Party secretary of the TAR, 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 Valleys. 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-kilometre-wide strip of land that connects India’s northeastern states to the Indo-Gangetic heartland. Bhutan has always been careful of India’s concerns vis-à-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 square kilometers in the north, provided Bhutan yields 269 square kilometers of its territory in the west, including Doklam as well as Charithang, Sinchulungpa, Dramana, and Shakhatoe.


The 495 square kilometers 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 six kilometres miles from Singye Dzong, another historic site within Bhutan.


When the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was established in 1949, Beijing disputed the colonial-era borders it inherited with most of its Himalayan neighbours. The PRC 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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