Ongoing border talks between Bhutan and China to formally demarcate their boundary have not prevented Beijing from continuing unsanctioned construction activity in North Bhutan’s Jakarlung Valley.
Satellite images of this region, the sharpest to be released so far, suggest that Thimphu may have no option but to accept the fait accompli presented by the Chinese in this area which lies 50 kilometres from Bhutan’s Eastern border with Arunachal Pradesh.
“This is a case of China making a claim to an area, based on earlier grazing practices by herders, that is very recent and without precedent – and then unilaterally seizing the territory and settling it with villages, military barracks and outposts,” according to Professor Robert Barnett, an expert on Tibetan history at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London.
”Jakarlung adjoins the Beyul Khenpajong, which is an important cultural and religious area for the Bhutanese. So this case represents China making a very recent, doubtful claim about an area that is of great cultural significance to a far less powerful neighbour, knowing that neighbour has few if any options as to its response.”
The images in this report from Maxar show how China has scaled up its physical presence in the Jakarlung Valley over two years. Images from December 7, last week, show ongoing construction of at least 129 buildings which appear to be residential quarters in one settlement and at least 62 buildings in a second enclave a short distance away. Earlier images from August 2021 of the same area show that none of these buildings had been constructed.
”The sheer scale of this developmental activity emphasises that these villages are not merely isolated outposts but rather integral components forming a comprehensive ecosystem that supports China’s territorial ambitions, further contributing to the Sinicization of the Bhutanese landscape,” says Damien Symon, who has written extensively about the Chinese intrusions in the East and West of Bhutan.
The new images come at a time when Bhutan has stepped up ties with China, in an effort to end Chinese incursions into its territory once and for all. In October this year, Foreign Minister Tandi Dorji travelled to Beijing, a first for Bhutan. That same month, Prime Minister Lotay Tshering told The Hindu, ”We hope to see a line being drawn- this side Bhutan and that side China. We don’t have that right now.”
Significantly, in his interview to The Hindu, Tshering did not reject the possibility of Beijing and Thimphu agreeing to a land swap – where territory in areas including Jakarlung, described in this report, could be exchanged if China were to give up its claim to the Doklam plateau which lies further to the south. In November, Bhutan’s King Jigme Khesar Nangyel Wangchuk visited India on an official visit. While details of the ongoing border negotiations were not spelt out in the joint statement which was released, both sides ”held discussions on the entire gamut of bilateral cooperation and regional and global issues of mutual interest.”
In 2017, India and China were involved in a tense two-month-long standoff in Doklam when Indian troops physically prevented the extension of an illegal Chinese road in the area. Mr. Tshering did, however, confirm that ”it will be to Bhutan’s interest to make sure both the parties [India and China] are happy with the decisions we make” in the border talks.
Irrespective of any outcome, ”India may be concerned by the precedent that Jakarlung sets for China’s willingness to abrogate treaty obligations when it comes to border disputes,” says Robert Barnett. ”China signed a formal agreement with Bhutan in 1998 not to alter the status quo in disputed areas. In occupying and settling Jakarlung, it violated that agreement.”
India’s immediate concerns over Chinese expansion within Bhutanese territory also extend to the Amu Chu river valley which lies directly adjacent to the Doklam plateau.
Following the Doklam standoff, China has constructed at least three villages along the valley. Any further Chinese extension South would raise alarm bells in New Delhi since that would mean a Chinese presence close to the Siliguri Corridor, the narrow corridor that connects India’s Northeast with the rest of the country. The Indian Army has, on several occasions, made it clear to the government that China is approaching a red line that it should never be allowed to cross.
China’s use of what India’s first Chief of Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat described as “salami-slicing” of territory has been a standard tactic for all of its territorial expansion plans – from converting shoals in the South China Seas to full-fledged military outposts to pushing across multiple points in Eastern Ladakh.
”In May 2020 in Eastern Ladakh, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) advanced in five areas, but in that case, India strongly reacted after a few days,” explains Claude Arpi, the renowned Tibetologist.
”In Bhutan’s case, the Royal Bhutan Army does not have the capacity to react and push the PLA or Border Defence Force back or even stop the construction of the new villages.”
Of greater concern to New Delhi, which in the past was a net guarantor of security for Bhutan, the ongoing talks could result in a profound geo-strategic realignment in the area. ”Bhutan is slowly shifting towards the strategic orbit of China and there is not much that India can do, except if a new security agreement is signed between Delhi and Thimphu,” says Arpi.
”It is a difficult situation for Delhi and for the King of Bhutan.”