China stealthily encroaches Bhutan territory – populates Xiaokang village

China, Xi Jinping

There is always a method to Chinese madness and this applies to its “Xiaokang Villages” also. Construction of these villages began across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) just over a decade ago, China has today began populating them. The delay in getting residents for these villages is probably because of the reluctance of Tibetans to populate these areas. As per latest news reports, this is happening in two places, first along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) opposite Arunachal Pradesh and second, inside Bhutan. Both developments, though minor in terms of number of peoples settled is still significant in many ways. That China has started implementing plans to settle its citizens along the border and in some places across the border, like in Bhutan, is a clear and present danger as China eventually intends to use these settled populations to claim these territories as their own, when arriving at a final settlement on the boundary question with India and Bhutan.

The Indian Express reported that in the last few months, Chinese nationals had started occupying a couple of villages built on its side of the LAC across from Lohit Valley and Tawang sector in Arunachal Pradesh.  The report states that these villages are believed to serve as “dual-use infrastructure” for both civilian and military activities, representing a Chinese assertion of territorial claims along the LAC. Thus far, the two-storey buildings within these villages along the LAC were vacant. However, in recent months, Chinese nationals have begun to move in. It is, however, unclear whether occupants are civilians or military personnel. Last year, Tibet authorities offered up to 12,800 yuan (US$ 1,780) as an incentive to residents in other parts of the region to resettle in the border area. The Shannan city government, which administers Lhozhag county, has said it will also establish a trial scheme of “professional border residents” to increase the size of the defence forces and speed up the “deep cooperation between the military and civilians”.

The latest development is not new as China has been steadily enhancing its infrastructure all along the LAC in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh. This has also been the case with its borders with Nepal, and Bhutan. An anonymous official told the Indian Express that “They (the Chinese) have built sufficient infrastructure along the LAC at Tawang, but they are not stopping at that. Even in other areas such as Siang valley of Arunachal Pradesh, we have been seeing rapid development of Chinese infrastructure”. China has consistently been enhancing its existing infrastructure, including improvements in connectivity through passes, as well as the construction of roads, bridges, and model villages. Additionally, China has also been engaged in infrastructure development, including the construction of border villages, within Bhutanese territory.

In a remote border zone inside Bhutan, 18 Chinese residents have moved into their new houses in a Xiaokang Village, with each of them carrying a freshly framed portrait of China’s President Xi Jinping, while behind them a bright red banner welcomed them in Chinese and Tibetan script. This event occurred on 28 December 2023. They make up 38 households from the Tibetan city of Shigatse who have moved into the newly expanded village of Tamalung. This information was publicised by the Tibet Federation of Industry and Commerce on WeChat. The village is one of at least three built by China inside the disputed zone. The South China Morning Post reports that satellite imagery, taken by US-based Maxar Technologies seven days before the residents moved in, showed 147 new houses. Media reports said the village expansion was designed to accommodate 235 households, in addition to the 200 people who were living there in just 70 homes at the end of 2022.

Lhozhag county, which administers Tamalung, spent an estimated 26 million yuan (US$ 3.6 million) on infrastructure for the village, according to its 2023 funding report. The allocation funded the reinforcement of the bank of a stream, two bridges and paved roads. Satellite imagery shows the works were completed within six months. To the east of Tamalung, another border village, Gyalaphug, also doubled in size last year after around 16 sq km (6.2 square miles) was razed to make way for more than 150 houses. Satellite imagery also shows new homes sitting next to an existing four rows of dwellings and a Communist Party of China community centre with a small library and other amenities.

According to Chinese state media, Gyalaphug was established in 2007 with just two homes and no water or electricity. It was developed into a model village from 2016-2018 as part of Xi’s “moderate prosperity” poverty alleviation campaign. People’s Daily reported that more than 620 “border moderate prosperity villages” were established by the end of 2021, Xi’s deadline for the party’s centenary goal to alleviate poverty in the country.  The Chinese have labelled the Xiaokang Villages as being part of state-led poverty alleviation schemes to provide better living conditions. But they also doubled as “citadels” to strengthen national security, according to the SCMP. State media has described the dual function of the villages as coming from the very top of the Communist Party of China.

China’s Foreign Ministry informed SCMP that Chinese construction at the border will not influence its border talks with Bhutan. The challenge is that the place where the Xiaokang Villages have been built are inside Bhutan. While Thimpu may not rake up the issue, India would certainly need to keep a close watch as China and Bhutan engage in border talks. Any agreement that formalises Chinese occupation of Bhutanese territory will create a security challenge for both Bhutan and India in the long run. The same goes for villages that China has now made along the LAC on their side across Arunachal Pradesh. This could well be the future of Chinese strategy to settle the border question to their advantage.

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