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Beijing is transferring its South China Sea strategy to the Himalayas

Just in time for its national day in October, China completed the construction of a new village high in the mountains, where the Chinese region of Tibet meets the Kingdom of Bhutan. One hundred people moved into two dozen new homes along the Torsa River and celebrated the holiday by raising the Chinese flag and singing the national anthem.

“Each of us is a coordinate of the great homeland,” a border guard was quoted as saying by the official state news agency China Tibetan News.

The problem is that these new “coordinates” are more than a mile inside what Bhutan considers its territory.

The construction, documented in satellite images, followed a game book that China has been using for years. He rejected neighbors’ claims to sovereignty to consolidate his position in territorial disputes by unilaterally changing the facts on the ground.

It uses the same tactics in the South China Sea, where it fortified and armed shoals claimed by Vietnam and the Philippines, despite a US promise not to do so.

This year, the Chinese military gathered in the Himalayas and crossed into territory that the Indians claimed was on their side of the actual border. This led to the bloodiest clash in China in decades, with at least 21 Indian soldiers killed, along with an unknown number of Chinese troops. The violence greatly worsened the relationship, which was constantly improving.

Even when provoked, China’s territorial looting is difficult to overcome the use of force, as the Indian government has learned. Following the border dispute, Chinese troops remain in camps in areas once controlled by India.

“Ultimately, this reflects the consolidation of China’s control over the area it claims,” ​​said M. Taylor Fravel, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Security Research Program and an expert on the Chinese military.

China has taken aggressive action against many of its neighbors over the past year, with little attention to diplomatic or geopolitical implications. His actions reflect Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s ambition to defend the country’s territory. claims, economic interests and strategic needs around the world.

Mr Xi often cited China’s historical complaints against foreign encroachment and colonization, using his past to justify his aggressive strategic activities.

The construction of the Himalayan village suggests that China has expanded a broader campaign to strengthen its southern flanks to include Bhutan, the 800,000-strong Buddhist nation that promotes the concept of “gross national happiness.”

As construction was underway on this long-disputed border, China added a new request this summer to nearly 300 square miles of land at Sakteng Sanctuary, a reserve on the other side of Bhutan where the village is being built.

Pushing its borders, China seems on the sidelines for decades of quiet and ultimately fruitless negotiations to finalize the two countries’ borders. The 25th round of talks this year has been postponed due to the coronavirus.

“Obviously the Chinese are losing patience,” Tenzing Lamsang, editor of the Bhutanese newspaper and president of the Bhutan Media Association, wrote on Twitter.

The dispute stems from different interpretations of a treaty signed in 1890 by two non-existent imperial powers – the United Kingdom as colonial ruler of India and the Qing dynasty in China.

The new village is near the Doklam Plateau, where the borders of China, India and Bhutan converge. The plateau was the site of a 73-day confrontation between Indian and Chinese troops in 2017, which began with the construction of a road to Bhutan territory. India, which is required to defend Bhutan under a long-standing security pact, has forced troops to halt Chinese work.

Bhutan, which has been squeezed between the two giants in recent years, does not pose a military threat to China. For China, control of the area would give its forces a strategic position near a narrow strip of land in India called the Siliguri Corridor.

This area, which Indian military strategists also call the “Chicken Throat”, connects most of India with its easternmost provinces, bordering Bangladesh, Myanmar and China.

Mr Lamsang noted that Bhutan has long had to adhere to India’s security interests. In his repeated talks with the Chinese, Bhutan has so far refused to make any territorial concessions on the western and central borders.

“Given Bhutan’s refusal to step down in the negotiations or even agree to compromises from China, we are now paying a price,” Mr Lamsang wrote.

Neither the Bhutanese nor the Chinese Foreign Ministry responded to requests for comment.

The Global Times, a Communist Party newspaper that often echoes the hawkish view among Chinese authorities, ridicules claims that the newly built village is in Bhutan, accusing India of inciting tensions with China’s southern neighbors. A day later, the newspaper warned against “impending foreign forces supporting the campaign to smash China through the Himalayas.”

The exact location of the new village, called Pangda, appeared in a series of satellite images recently published by Maxar Technologies, a Colorado-based company. They showed that construction began late last year and was completed, apparently, not long before October 1, China’s National Day. The Chinese version of the border is located south of the village.

The images also showed extensive new road construction and the construction of bunkers for military depots, according to Maxar spokesman Stephen Wood. However, the bunkers are located on undisputed Chinese territory, indicating that China has tried to increase its military presence along much of the border with the Himalayas. Images of China’s new construction were announced earlier by NDTV, a broadcaster in India.

China is not hiding the construction, as evidenced by several state media reports about the village. One narrated the inauguration ceremony on October 18, which was attended by senior Shanghai officials, including Yu Shaoliang, deputy secretary of the Communist Party’s city committee.

In China, richer provinces often sponsor development projects in poorer regions, especially Tibet and Xinjiang. China took over Tibet in the early 1950s, when the new communist government sought to restore sovereignty over the Tibetan people and territory lost after the fall of the Qing Dynasty. Although the Chinese have called its accession “the peaceful liberation of Tibet,” many Tibetans are unhappy with Chinese rule.

Mr Fravel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said that with its recent construction, China seemed to have moved away from potential compromises it had emerged from previous rounds of border talks with Bhutan, in which it offered to trade territories.

“Previous compromise ideas from the 1990s may no longer be on the table,” he said, “because China may be reluctant or unlikely to withdraw from a territory where it has built such infrastructure.”

Elsie Chen contributed to the research.

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