Beijing Takes Its South China Sea Strategy to the Himalayas


Just in time for its National Day in October, China completed construction of a new village high in the mountains where the Chinese region of Tibet meets the kingdom of Bhutan. A hundred people moved into two dozen new homes beside the Torsa River and celebrated the holiday by raising China’s flag and singing the national anthem.

“Each of us is a coordinate of the great motherland,” a border guard was quoted as saying by an official state news agency, China Tibetan News.

The problem is, these new “coordinates” are more than a mile inside what Bhutan considers its territory.

The construction, documented in satellite photos, followed a playbook China has used for years. It has brushed aside neighbors’ claims of sovereignty to cement its position in territorial disputes by unilaterally changing the facts on the ground.

“In the end, it reflects the consolidation of China’s control over the area it claims,” said M. Taylor Fravel, director of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an expert on China’s military.

The new village is near the Doklam Plateau, where the borders of China, India and Bhutan converge. The plateau was the site of a 73-day standoff between Indian and Chinese troops in 2017 that began over the construction of a road into Bhutanese territory. India, which is obliged to defend Bhutan under a longstanding security pact, pushed troops forward to halt the Chinese work.

Bhutan, which in recent years has felt squeezed between the two giants, poses no military threat to China. For China, control of the area would give its forces a strategic position near a narrow strip of land in India called the Siliguri Corridor.

That area, which Indian military strategists also call the Chicken Neck, connects the bulk of India to its easternmost provinces bordering Bangladesh, Myanmar and China.

Mr. Lamsang noted that Bhutan has long had to defer to India’s security interests. In its repeated talks with the Chinese, Bhutan has so far been unwilling to make any territorial concessions along the western and central borders.

“Given Bhutan’s refusal to concede in the talks or even agree to compromises by China we are now paying a price,” Mr. Lamsang wrote.

Neither the Bhutanese nor the Chinese foreign ministry responded to requests for comment.

Global Times, a Communist Party newspaper that often echoes a hawkish view among Chinese officials, ridiculed the claims that the newly built village was in Bhutan, blaming India for stoking tensions with China’s southern neighbors. A day later, the newspaper warned against “looming foreign forces backing the China-bashing campaign across the Himalayas.”

“Previous compromise ideas from the 1990s may no longer be on the table,” he said, “as China may be unwilling or unlikely to withdraw from territory where it has erected such infrastructure.”

Elsie Chen contributed research.



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