China building villages on disputed border with Bhutan amid talks to reach boundary settlement

China is reportedly pressing ahead with the construction of border villages in the disputed territory with Bhutan, despite the ongoing border talks between the two countries.

At least three villages have been built in the mountainous region separating the two countries, with some doubling in size, the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported on Sunday.

The rapid expansion began as a poverty alleviation scheme but serves a dual national security role, the report quoted the ruling Chinese Communist Party officials as saying.

According to the report, in a remote village in the Himalayas, inside a border zone that has long been disputed by China and Bhutan, 18 new Chinese residents were waiting to enter their newly built homes.

Each carried a freshly framed portrait of Chinese President Xi Jinping – large enough to leave only their heads and lower legs exposed – while behind them a bright red banner welcomed them in Chinese and Tibetan script.

It was December 28 and they were the first batch of people – made up of 38 households from the Tibetan city of Shigatse – to move into the newly expanded Tamalung village, the report said, quoting a statement made by the Tibet Federation of Industry and Commerce in its WeChat account.

“The village is one of at least three built by China inside the disputed zone. Local governments in the Tibet Autonomous Region led a rapid expansion of border villages last year, with Tamalung doubling in size in the latter half of 2023,” the report said.

Satellite imagery – taken by US-based Maxar Technologies seven days before the residents moved in – shows 147 new houses.

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.

China has been pressing ahead with its plans to build well-furnished villages in both the Indian and Bhutan borders.

Significantly, China is pressing ahead with its border villages plan along its disputed border with Bhutan after the two countries signed a “Cooperation Agreement” outlining the Responsibilities and Functions of the Joint Technical Team (JTT) on the Delimitation and Demarcation of the Bhutan-China Boundary in October last year.

The agreement was signed during the visit of Bhutanese Foreign Minister Dr Tandi Dorji who held talks with China’s former Ambassador to India and the current Vice Foreign Minister Sun Weidong at the 25th Round of Boundary Talks between the two nations.

China and Bhutan do not have diplomatic relations but maintain contact through periodic visits by officials.

While China has resolved its boundary disputes with its 12 other neighbours, India and Bhutan are the only two countries with whom it is yet to sign border agreements.

China in recent years stepped up efforts to establish full-fledged diplomatic ties with Bhutan and to expedite negotiations to settle the vexed border dispute, which was complicated by Beijing’s attempts to claim Doklam despite Thimphu’s assertions that the area belonged to it.

China’s attempts to build a road in the Doklam plateau in 2017 resulted in an India-China stand-off, triggering tensions between the two neighbours.

India strongly opposed the construction of the road by the Chinese military at the Doklam tri-junction as it would have impacted its overall security interests since it runs close to the narrow Siliguri Corridor also known as the Chicken Neck, connecting India with its north-eastern region.

The standoff ended after Beijing dropped its plan to build the road.

In 2020, China made a surprising claim on Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary in Bhutan at the Global Environment Facility (GEF) Council by opposing funding for the project.

Bhutan lodged a demarche to the Chinese Embassy in India over China’s claim over the sanctuary made at the GEF meeting.

The Post report said the villages were part of China’s state-led poverty alleviation scheme to provide better living conditions but they doubled as “citadels” to strengthen national security.

To the east of Tamalung, another border village, Gyalaphug, also doubled in size last year after around 16 sq km (10 square miles) was razed to make way for more than 150 houses.

Satellite imagery shows the new homes sitting next to an existing four rows of dwellings and a Communist Party community centre with a small library and other amenities, the report said.

Quoting China’s state media, the report said Gyalaphug was established in 2007 with just two homes and no water or electricity.

It was developed into a model village from 2016-18 as part of Xi’s “moderate prosperity” poverty alleviation campaign.

The ruling Communist Party’s mouthpiece 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.

Local officials and state media have described the dual function of the villages – to provide modern housing and defend the border – as coming from the very top of the party.