China building 6 new settlements in disputed, barely habitable border with Bhutan

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The Chinese village of Pangda lies 2 kilometres within Bhutanese territory, its state media suggested. (Photo courtesy: NDTV)

(TibetanReview.net, Jan15’22) – It does not matter whether your country’s territory is big, small or tiny. If it neighours rising China, thanks to its invasion and occupation of Tibet, there is no escape from its insatiable expansionist design.

China is currently fortifying its territorial claims against Bhutan by building more than 200 settlement structures at six disputed locations, reported Reuters Jan 12, citing US data analytics firm HawkEye 360, which uses satellites to gather intelligence on ground-level activities.

Material provided by satellite imagery firms Capella Space and Planet Labs show that Construction-related activity in some of the locations along Bhutan’s western border had been under way since early 2020, with China initially building tracks and clearing out areas, the report cited Chris Biggers, the mission applications director at HawkEye 360, as saying.

He has said images show that the settlement-building work speeded up in 2021. Smaller structures were erected – possibly to house equipment and supplies – followed by the laying of foundations and then the construction of buildings, he has said.

The report cited two other experts who studied the locations of the new construction and recent satellite images taken by Capella Space as saying all six settlements appeared to be in territory disputed by China and Bhutan – including a contested tract of roughly 110 square kilometres – with little in the way of resources or native population.

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Bhutan has refused to comment on the development. 

“It is Bhutan’s policy not to talk about boundary issues in the public,” the report quoted the country’s foreign ministry as saying, without any further comment.

On the other hand, China has claimed that the construction was “entirely for the improvement of the working and living conditions of the local people.”

“It is within China’s sovereignty to carry out normal construction activities on its own territory,” the report quoted China’s foreign ministry as saying, declining any further comment.

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The report said the new construction is 9 to 27km from the Doklam area at the junction of the borders of India, Bhutan and China, where Indian and Chinese troops were locked in standoff for more than two months in 2017.

The report cited an expert and an Indian defence source as saying the new settlements would allow China to better control and monitor far-flung areas, and potentially use them to establish security-focused installations.

Bhutan, a country of less than 800,000 people, has been negotiating with Beijing for almost four decades to settle their 477-km border. At issue for Bhutan is not just territorial integrity, but also concerns over the potential security implications for India, which is the Himalayan kingdom’s main ally and economic partner, the report noted.

“China’s village building across the claimed Bhutan border appears to be designed to force Bhutan to yield to Chinese demands in their border negotiations, now in their 24th round after 37 years,” Robert Barnett, a professorial research associate at SOAS University of London, has said.

The new settlements are seen as part of a plan Beijing made public in 2017 to build more than 600 villages in border areas in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), which lies on the Chinese (ie, occupied Tibet) side of the disputed border, Barnett and M Taylor Fravel, director of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have said.

Barnett has said some of the villages near the border are built where there has been no previous construction, with the Chinese government giving residents subsidies to settle there.

“All the cross-border villages in the western Bhutan sector are sited in areas where no natural village would be found, since these areas are barely habitable,” he has said.

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