In the territory China lays claim to in west Bhutan, it has built a village named Pangda. Roads and other infrastructure has also come up to support the village, which is not far from Doklam. The village, located around 2.5 km inside Bhutanese territory from the border with China, is one of the 628 xiaokang villages, as is Gyalaphug.
These villages will serve as permeant watch posts for the PLA. The inhabitants of these villages, whom the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) calls the “defenders of sacred land and constructors of happy homes”, will be additional eyes and ears for the PLA in areas where China’s claims overlap with those of Bhutan and India.
The CCP has made no secret of the construction of villages along the Himalayan frontier with India or the aim it wants to achieve with it. In 2018, Zhuang Yan, deputy secretary of the Party Committee of Tibet, said that the border villages were being developed to ensure “consolidation of border areas and border security”.
“This is to implement … the central policies of improving support to border residents, stabilising and consolidating the border,” the Chinese plan says.
To attract its loyalists and cadre, the CCP is investing in the construction of infrastructure such as road network and power grid. Around 30.1 billion yuan or nearly $4.6 billion were earmarked in 2017 for the construction of new homes and infrastructure for transport, energy, water and communication and facilities for education, health and culture under the programme.
The project has received consistent attention from the CCP’s top echelons.
In 2018, Che Dalha, the chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region, visited the Yumai village, home to sisters who wrote to Xi Jinping, to take stock of the construction of the border village. In August 2020, only a few weeks after the clashes between the Indian Army and the PLA in eastern Ladakh’s Galwan River Valley, China’s Foreign Minister and State Councillor Wang Yi made a visit to border areas in Tibet to inspect “infrastructure building and the construction of villages”.
A new Chinese village that has come up in Arunachal Pradesh’s Upper Subansiri district has been built under this programme. While the area where the village has come up is part of Arunachal Pradesh, it has been under Chinese control since 1959. Construction of the village will improve Beijing’s control over the remote area.
But in Bhutan, China’s plan is not limited to land grab.
In negotiations over the boundary issue which began in 1984, Beijing has offered to give up on its claims on 495 square kilometres of territory in the north if Thimphu relents on 269 square kilometres of its territory in the west, including Doklam. Bhutan, sensitive to India’s security concerns linked to Doklam, has rejected this offer.
China’s interest in Doklam comes from the plateau’s proximity to the Siliguri Corridor, a 60-km long and 22-km wide passage that connects India’s northeast with the rest of the country. The corridor — known also as the ‘Chicken’s Neck’ — is seen as a strategic vulnerability, a choke point that China could exploit in the event of war.
In 2017, China started building a road on the Doklam plateau headed towards the Jampheri ridge. From this ridge starts the descent into the foothills of southwestern Bhutan that lead into the Siliguri Corridor. Access to the ridge will bring China closer to the corridor, making it vulnerable, and this was why the Indian Army sent troops into Bhutanese territory to stop the construction of the road.
But given Bhutan’s refusal to trade Doklam for settlement on territory in the north, China has adopted a strategy of needling the landlocked country with transgressions and occupation of its territory to force it to consider its options.
China’s strategy is to create an impression in Bhutan that the country is unable to protect its interests by trading territory because of India’s security concerns, thus creating a wave of anger against Delhi and the government in Thimphu.
The resulting public sentiment, it believes, will force Bhutan to reconsider trading Doklam for a settlement in other areas and create diplomatic space for Beijing in Thimphu.