New satellite images appear to show China has built up an area in the Himalayas along a disputed border with India and Bhutan that was the site of a months-long standoff in 2017.
According to US-based satellite operator Maxar Technologies, the images, dated October 28, 2020, show “there has clearly been significant construction activity this year all along the Torsa River valley area.” In a statement, Maxar added there had also been construction of “new military storage bunkers” near the Doklam area.
Maxar said the images show the newly constructed Pangda Village, on the Bhutanese side of the disputed border, as well as a supply depot in Chinese territory, near the point of a tense dispute between Indian and Chinese forces in 2017.
In a statement, Bhutan’s ambassador to India, Major General Vetsop Namgyel, said “there is no Chinese village inside Bhutan.”
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that “China’s normal construction activities on its own territory are entirely within the scope of China’s sovereignty, and there is nothing wrong with it.” India’s Ministry of External Affairs did not respond to a request for comment.
Indian broadcaster NDTV first reported the satellite images.
A thin strip of land bordering all three countries, the Doklam area is claimed by both China and Bhutan, but it is also strategically important to India, because of its proximity to the Siliguri Corridor, a vital artery between New Delhi and its north eastern states.
“The Siliguri Corridor is strategically important and highly sensitive territory, as it remains the only bridge between the eight north-eastern states of India and the rest of the country,” analyst Syed Fazl-e-Haider wrote earlier this year in an article published by Australian think tank, The Lowy Institute . “By an advance of just 130 kilometers (80 miles), the Chinese military could cut off Bhutan, west Bengal and the north-eastern states of India. About 50 million people in north-east India would be separated from the country.”
In an article in the state-run Global Times newspaper Monday, Chinese experts were quoted refuting Maxar’s claims and reports in Indian media that a village had been built in Bhutanese territory.
Just where the two countries draw their borders is highly disputed, however. The 2017 stand-off was sparked after Bhutan accused China of constructing a road inside its territory in “direct violation” of treaty obligations. China, which does not have formal diplomatic relations with Bhutan, denied the accusation, contending that the area is part of Chinese territory.
Bhutan is traditionally a strong ally of India’s, relying on Delhi to provide training for its armed forces and cooperating closely with India on foreign policy. That appears to be shifting, however, particularly as the rivalry between Beijing and Delhi heats up.
Earlier this year, India and China engaged in a bloody clash along another disputed border in the Himalayas which left at least 20 soldiers dead, the worst conflict between the two countries since they fought a war over the same territory in 1962.
While both countries agreed to deescalate, Maxar Technologies’ satellite imagery has shown that China continues to reinforce its position along the border with India, though further construction is unlikely at this time of year due to the harsh winter conditions high in the Himalayas.
The continued gradual reinforcement of positions, and angrily rebuffed allegations of encroachment, has echoes of Beijing’s behavior in the South China Sea, where it has built up and militarized islets, reefs and islands, giving it effective control of huge swaths of the disputed region, a hugely important fishing and shipping area over which sovereignty is claimed in part or whole by six other governments.
“They’re asserting their claim so they’re creating the facts on the ground so there’s the village, which is part of a larger policy,” said Manoj Joshi, a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi-based think tank. “After (2017), they realized, just like the Indian side, their border areas are very thinly populated so it becomes very difficult to patrol the area. Now, by creating these facts on the ground, by creating this village, you can say it was always there. In the style of the Chinese, you create the facts on ground and then you say it’s always been the case.”
“I think (Bhutan has) figured that we’ll live with it and not make a noise and just look the other way,” Joshi said, adding that without its neighbor complaining, there is little Delhi can do.
“As the crow flies, this point is over 11 kilometers from the Indian position so there’s nothing India can do unless Bhutan makes a public call for help. If you look at the Indo-Bhutanese Treaty, there’s no explicit defense clause. So, essentially the Bhutanese live with it, we look the other way and the Chinese create the facts on the ground.”
In particular, the rather tenuous nature of Pangda Village is reminiscent of the initial bases built on sandbars and tiny islets in the disputed waters. The high Himalayas are a hostile environment at the best of times, but as Nathan Ruser, an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, the new village appears built more for territorial bragging rights than longevity.
“The high resolution imagery also shows how precarious of a village it is, being constructed on what is essentially a sandbank in the middle of a mountain river valley (where snowmelt and high cliffs make water flow unpredictable and flash floods common),” Ruser wrote on Twitter in response to the new imagery. “To combat this Chinese engineers have constructed a small retaining wall, I assume designed to keep any flood water out of the village. I’m not sure I’d trust it when the only way in and out is a road that would get flooded before the village.”
James Griffiths reported from Hong Kong. Manveena Suri reported from New Delhi.