A confrontation is fomenting on the roof of the world in a country that rarely warrants international attention.
In the tiny Kingdom of Bhutan, China is building villages in isolated, mountainous regions, upping the pressure on the capital Thimphu to yield contested areas to Beijing. In doing so, China risks a collision with South Asia’s largest state and Bhutan’s principal security guarantor, India.
Sitting on top of fragile geopolitical fault lines in the Himalayas, China’s Central Military Commission has seemingly authorized a series of incursions into the Bhutanese regions of Doklam, Jakarlung, and Pasamlung. Beijing has also announced fresh claims in the east towards Sakteng. Taken together, these amount to 12 per cent of Bhutan’s total territory according to Nathan Ruser, an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
India is wary of Beijing’s increased assertiveness in the Himalayas following a large-scale incursion by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into Ladakh two years ago when dozens of Indian and Chinese soldiers were killed in a stand-off.
The appearance of Chinese roads, villages and a host of other infrastructure projects within largely uninhabited areas of Bhutan close to Tibet, have, for sections of India’s national security establishment, confirmed their worst fears – Beijing is altering the status quo across the Himalayas in a bid to undermine India’s strategic security through territorial alterations.
As a country of only 780,000 people, Bhutan is greatly influenced by New Delhi when it comes to its foreign affairs. In exchange, India guarantees the defence of the kingdom and trains the Royal Bhutanese Army. The appearance of Chinese villages on its territory risks Bhutan becoming a victim of the wider regional tensions.
The trauma of China-Bhutan border relations
Bhutan is no stranger to the territorial aspirations of its northern neighbour. Thousands of refugees fled into the country after China annexed Tibet, damaging longstanding cultural and religious links between the Tibetan and Bhutanese people – a trauma still being felt today.
Now, Beijing is laying claim to three areas within Bhutan, including Doklam in the west. This plateau is close to the Siliguri Corridor which connects to the ‘Seven Sister’ states in northeast India. Indeed, such is India’s concern over any Chinese presence near Doklam that in 2017 local Indian commanders sent troops into Bhutan to prevent PLA engineers building a road near the Doka La pass, resulting in a 72-day stand-off on Bhutanese soil between India and China, an experience Thimphu is unwilling to repeat.
Once again, China is looking to force the border issue unilaterally, altering the status quo and building villages and outposts on Bhutanese soil. On the available evidence, it has been doing so for at least three years.
The presence of Chinese villages in uninhabited areas of Bhutan serves a strategic purpose. They appear to be intended to pressure Bhutan into accepting an earlier version of a border deal that concedes Doklam to the Chinese.
Bhutan’s increasing concern is that China now views the Sino-Bhutanese border dispute as a way of unravelling India’s strategic position by stealth. Here we see a growing pattern of behaviour across the Himalayas. China is testing the boundaries in isolated and contested areas of India to attain local advantages that ensure New Delhi’s gaze remains fixed on the Himalayas.
The costly choice facing Bhutan
Bhutan for its part has very deliberately opted to remain silent, despite clear violations of its border deal with Beijing. Thimphu has made no public comment on any of the Chinese incursions.
The choice now facing Bhutan is a costly one. To concede Doklam would devastate relations with India, its closest partner. But to ignore China’s ambitions would be to risk further violations of its sovereign territory.
Bhutan may yet agree in principle to a land swap but then delay its implementation in the hope China limits any further advances. Thus Bhutan, India and China stand at a crossroads, with an impending confrontation that has not yet arrived and one that through Thimphu’s delicate diplomacy, Bhutan hopes never does.
China’s incursions into Bhutan
The most high-profile incursion is in the disputed areas in Doklam. Running adjacent to the previous Doka La stand-off site, a series of Chinese projects are visible, following the Amo Chu River that runs from the Chumbi Valley in Tibet into Bhutan.
The most well-known of these xiaokang – meaning peaceful and prosperous – border projects is Pangda, a village of 124 people that sits roughly two kilometres within Bhutan from the border. First spotted by open-source intelligence analysts in October-November 2020, Chinese state media says that 27 households were moved from the Shangdui village to Pangda in September of that year and that the village is located in Yadong County, Tibet. Pangda, however, lies on territory internationally recognized as belonging to Bhutan.
Since Pangda was first identified, two more villages and an additional excavation site have been noted through satellite photographs taken in March this year, steadily following the river further into Bhutanese territory. In recent reporting by journalist Vishnu Som, a connecting road is also visible that runs 9km into Bhutan.
Given the geopolitical sensitivities of the area vis-a-vis India, speculation points to Chinese attempts to increase pressure on the Jampheri ridge overlooking the 2017 stand-off site, which according to journalist Tenzing Lamsang, is currently occupied by a small Royal Bhutanese Army detachment. As ever in the Himalayas, small tactical alterations have strategic implications. Chinese control of the Jampheri ridge would command views towards Sikkim, increase the scope of China’s surveillance operations near the border and place India’s Eastern Theatre Command at a terrain disadvantage were it to intervene as it did at Doka La.
2. Dramana and Shakhatoe
Further north of Doklam, at Dramana and Shakhatoe, more villages have been identified, with recent photographs taken in November 2021 showing a collection of structures nestled between snow-capped mountains. Varying in size, the largest village identified by journalist Devjyot Ghoshal comprises more than 84 buildings with construction having been started in December 2020 and seemingly completed by December 2021.
Little is known about the nature of these villages or their occupants other than their size and location. However, the Chinese PLA has patrolled these areas aggressively, warning away Bhutanese herders and challenging counter patrols by the Royal Bhutanese Army.
A permanent PLA presence in the area would be a significant change to the status quo. Informed speculation suggests that these may house either civilian contractors brought in from Tibet to oversee construction projects in the area, Tibetan or Chinese citizens brought across the border, or they could even be barracks for the PLA to help facilitate increased patrols in these contested areas.
3. Menchuma Valley
Amid the sustained activity in the west of Bhutan, we are seeing similar levels of activity mirrored in the northern contested areas in Jakarlung, Pasumlung and the Menchuma Valley, a well-known entry point into Tibet for Bhutanese pilgrims.
In May 2021, a team of researchers led by Robert Barnett from the London School of Oriental and African Studies discovered three additional villages in these contested areas, alongside a series of infrastructure projects, sitting between 3km and 5km south of the Chinese border in Bhutan. Barnett identified what appears to be police and military posts near these villages, as well as a communications tower.
While the building efforts at Doklam are seen as having a geopolitical intent towards India, these villages and their locations are seemingly aimed to maximize China’s leverage over Bhutan. They are considered sacred in Tibetan Buddhist teachings as the birthplace of ancient Himalayan cultural heroes, with strong links to the Bhutanese royal family. Today they are the home to holy sites and temples, such as the Singye Dzong.
For China to intrude on this area, and in some cases even deny entry to parts of it, is suppression of Bhutanese history, culture and traditions. By design or by default, Beijing is managing Tibetan religion and culture beyond the borders of the Tibetan Administrative Region.