In early April, the Chinese welcomed a delegation of international visitors to the city of Kunming in Yunnan province.
The “expert group” was there to discuss China’s mountainous southern border, a tricky frontier to pin down due to it lying in uninhabited and wild terrain.
According to accounts from China’s press, the meeting between it and tiny Bhutan was exceptionally cordial.
“The expert group meeting held in-depth and fruitful discussions on the boundary issue in a warm and friendly atmosphere,” China’s foreign ministry stated, as reported by Communist (CPC) mouthpiece the Global Times.
Which was all the more surprising because according to new research, China has quietly been invading its Himalayan neighbour for years.
A paper published by journal Foreign Policy stated China has built an entire town, replete with roads, a power plant, two CPC buildings, a communications base, military and police outposts and a warehouse, almost 8 kilometres into Bhutan.
What Beijing has already done in the South China Sea – building outposts and claiming dubious sovereignty – is now also being done in the Himalayas, according to reports.
It was perhaps no surprise that the Kunming meeting was so friendly. With a population of just 800,000 compared to China’s 1.4 billion, “there is little Bhutan can do” but watch as Beijing takes large gulps of its territory, the paper states.
What’s worse for Bhutan is that it isn’t even the real target for Beijing. Rather, it’s become caught in a geopolitical sparring match.
“This involves a strategy that is more provocative than anything China has done on its land borders in the past,” wrote Robert Barnett inForeign Policy earlier this month.
“The settlement of an entire area within another country goes far beyond the forward patrolling and occasional road-building.”
Chinese town that appeared 8kms into Bhutan
The Kingdom of Bhutan lies entirely within the southern slopes of the Himalayas. To the south is the vast expanse of India and to the north, over the mountain peaks, the even vaster expanse of China.
The largely Buddhist Bhutanese have much in common with the people of Tibet which now lies within China. But diplomatically and economically, the government in Thimphu has closer links to India. Beijing doesn’t even have an embassy in Bhutan.
That Bhutan and China can’t agree where their 470km common border lies is nothing new. By some accounts Beijing claims 12 per cent of the territory governed by Thimphu. The recent meeting in Kunming was the 25th the two nations have held concerning the frontier.
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China has long built roads into these disputed territories. But building a whole town within the internationally recognised territory of another nation, even if that territory is disputed, is striking.
Called Gyalaphug, or Jieluobu in Chinese, an administration block at its centre features a hammer and sickle. A nearby banner proclaims “Resolutely uphold the core position of General Secretary Xi Jinping!”
It’s estimated several hundred people, and even more yaks, could now live in Gyalaphug. That number is boosted by a rotation of construction workers, party cadres, police and soldiers.
“There is little that Bhutan can do,” said Mr Barnett, given China would know it’s clearly violating a 1998 agreement to leave the disputed areas be.
That point is echoed by Johns Hopkins University professor of international relations Hal Brands.
“It’s unclear whether the Bhutanese government realised that the People’s Liberation Army had effectively invaded a small, remote part of its territory, or if it knew but was powerless to respond,” he told Bloomberg.
“What is clear is that the Chinese presence isn’t going anywhere. Beijing has executed a fait accompli by creating facts on the ground.”
China ‘quietly’ invading another sovereign nation
Prof Brands said China was operating an invasion “grey zone”.
It was “quietly sending troops onto pieces of inaccessible terrain claimed by Bhutan” but stopping short of actions that might cause a major conflict.
To the frustration of Bhutan, China’s territorial claims keep growing. Gyalaphug, for instance, is well within Bhutan according to some official Chinese maps from the 1980s.
Last July, the Chinese foreign ministry told India’s Hindustan Times there had been “disputes over the eastern, central and western sections (of Bhutan) for a long time”.
However, Bhutan is adamant that the dispute in the country’s east, where Beijing now claims land in the Sakteng wildlife reserve, is a new one. It’s never been raised by China before. Sakteng does not even border China.
It does, however, border the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which Beijing also claims as its own.
Observers say that’s another sign it’s not really about Bhutan at all. China’s real target appears to be India.
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Real target is India
The disputed chunks of Bhutan are bargaining chips.
“Ever since 1990, China has offered to give up the 495 square kilometres of the Beyul (where Gyalaphug is located) if Thimphu gives China 269 square kilometres of western Bhutan,” states the Foreign Policy which was also done with Tibetan researchers who did not want to be named.
This so-called “package deal” would mean ceding to China the area around the Doklam Plateau which is of far more strategic importance to Beijing than a village full of yaks high up a mountain.
China has reportedly built another village there, called Pangda, 2.5 kilometres into Bhutan. There are suggestions the Bhutanese government has turned a blind eye to the development rather than provoke Beijing.
Doklam lies next to India’s Siliguri corridor, a thin strip of land connecting Arunachal Pradesh with the rump of India. It is sandwiched between Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh, with China not much further away
It’s a corridor so thin, only 23km wide at its narrowest point, it’s nicknamed the “chicken’s neck”. It’s also known as “India’s geographic weak point”.
Writing in The Diplomat magazine last year, South Asia analyst Sudha Ramachandran said Bhutan’s claim over the Doklam Plateau and its closeness to New Delhi gave India a “major terrain advantage” over China.
But if Beijing had access to the Doklam highlands it could peer down on India and use it as a “launch pad for an offensive” to cut off the chicken’s neck. Arunachal Pradesh would be divided from the rest of India.
“China’s new claim over Sakteng is aimed at intimidating Bhutan into accepting the (Doklam) package deal — or face the consequences of Beijing’s rising territorial ambitions,” Ms Ramachandran said.
China and India have already clashed over Bhutan border
India and China have already come to blows over Doklam. In 2017, China built a road across the disputed plateau which was otherwise almost inaccessible. India sees the road as China asserting sovereignty.
Bhutan, which only has a small army, invited Indian soldiers to Doklam. China and India faced off against each other for 73 days in Bhutan, but no one was harmed.
That wasn’t the case in early 2020 when at least 24 soldiers died on the Himalayan border between China and India in Aksai Chin, far to the west of Doklam.
Tensions between New Delhi and Beijing are febrile and tiny, peaceful Bhutan is stuck in the middle. Any compromise with China will enrage India; keeping India onside could see China build more villages on Bhutanese soil.
Quoted by the Global Times, Qian Feng from the National Strategy Institute at Tsinghua University, said that the expert meeting in Kunming showed that “in the face of a small-sized country like Bhutan, China does not bully”.
That may raise eyebrows in Thimphu and wipe the smiles of the faces of the Bhutan delegates at the next meeting.