China Pushes Borders into Areas of Bhutan, Straining Relations and Risking Dispute with India
In early October, China completed the construction of Pangda, a village of 100 people near the Torsa River in the Himalayas. Pangda is situated in Bhutan, a small Buddhist kingdom of 800,000 that borders southwest China. The construction of Pangda, as well as other Chinese territorial claims to Bhutan, adds further strain on already sensitive Sino-Bhutanese and Sino-Indian relations.
According to The New York Times, Pangda is located near the Doklam Plateau, the site of clashes between Chinese and Indian troops in 2017. These clashes started when China began the construction of a road into Bhutanese territory and India stepped in on behalf of Bhutan based on a security pact between the two countries. While Bhutan has close diplomatic ties with India, The Economic Times explains that Bhutan has evaded Chinese attempts to establish diplomatic relations.
Maxar Technologies, a space technology company based in Colorado, captured satellite images showing that China began constructing Pangda late last year and finished before National Day on October 1, reports The New York Times. More recent satellite images show that China may be preparing to make a move on the Doklam Plateau. TRT World states that Maxar Technologies captured satellite images that show “new military storage bunkers” seven kilometers away from Doklam.
The Doklam Plateau is an area of strategic concern for both India and China. According to the Asia Times, adding Doklam to Chinese territory would give China wider access to the Chumbi Valley, which is between western Bhutan and India. TRT World also reports that the Chumbi Valley gives China the ability to cut off India’s Siliguri Corridor as well. The Siliguri Corridor, which India calls the “Chicken’s Neck,” is the only land connection between India and its eight northeastern states, making it an important strategic area for India.
In June, China made its first claim to Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary, a national park located in eastern Bhutan. However, China’s claim was rejected by Bhutan. According to BBC News, the 25th boundary discussion between the two countries was postponed this year due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Boundary discussions between the two nations have been going on since 1984.
In July, Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, stated “The boundary between China and Bhutan is yet to be demarcated, and the middle, eastern and western sections of the border are disputed.”
Chinese maps do not reflect the country’s territorial claim to the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary. M. Taylor Fravel, Director of MIT’s Security Studies Program for the Center of International Studies and author of “Active Defense: China’s Military Strategy Since 1949,” tweeted about how Chinese maps show that the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary and its surrounding areas are located in Bhutan territory, and have shown that since 1962.
The building of Pangda and Chinese claims to Sakteng and surrounding areas are part of a larger pattern of territorial disputes by China in the Himalayas in connection with India. Over the summer, China engaged in a violent interaction with India over disputed frontier territory in the Galwan Valley. In June, Chinese and Indian troops clashed at the Himalayan border, which The New York Times describes as the worst incident of violence between the two countries since the 1960s. Twenty Indian troops died during the clash in June while Chinese casualties remained unknown, leading to. protests in India against China.
Since the conflict, both China and India have been rushing reinforcements and supplies into the area. In September, Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, and Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India’s foreign minister, issued a statement pledging to “continue dialogue to disengage as quickly as possible,” reports The New York Times.
Abraham Denmark, Director of the Asia Program at The Wilson Center, said that the conflict in June “will likely be a watershed moment in India-China relations and the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific… Both countries are led by men who have embraced nationalism, and both countries are facing tremendous domestic and international upheaval as a result of COVID-19 and other long-standing problems,” reports AP.