Satellite imagery has emerged of China setting up villages in hitherto uninhabited stretches on its disputed borders with India and Bhutan, particularly in Arunachal Pradesh, with experts saying the move could be aimed at buttressing Beijing’s territorial claims.
Several villages have come up in the tri-junction between India, Bhutan and China, and the move follows the upgrading and construction of Chinese military facilities, including heliports and missile bases, all along the Line of Actual Control (LoAC) in the aftermath of the 2017 standoff at Doklam.
Imagery shared by the open source intelligence analyst who uses the name @detresfa on Twitter on 6 December showed what appeared to be five new border villages built near Bum La, the border pass located between Cona county in Tibet Autonomous Region and Tawang district in Arunachal Pradesh.
In a tweet, @detresfa said there is evidence of “new villages and accommodation similar to what was seen in Pangda village, Bhutan” in the vicinity of Bum La. The relocation of people to these villages “promises China with better border surveillance and patrols through a network of herders”, the tweet said.
Satellite imagery from Planet Labs, a private US company, shows that at least three villages have come up in an area about 5 km from Bum La. The imagery suggested construction of these villages, which are on the Chinese side of the LoAC, had continued even as thousands of Indian and Chinese troops faced off in Ladakh sector of the LoAC.
One image from Planet Labs dated 17 February showed only one village with some 20 structures in the area. A second image dated 28 November showed three additional villages in the same area with a total of about 50 structures. The villages are located about a kilometre from each other and connected by new roads.
Satellite imagery that emerged last month showed China has built a village called Pangda some two kilometres within territory claimed by Bhutan on Doklam plateau. This imagery showed China has built a road in the same region that goes about nine kilometres inside Bhutanese territory. Pangda is located about 10 km from the site of the 2017 Doklam standoff.
In August, Chinese state media had reported on how the government has improved infrastructure in villages close to the Arunachal Pradesh border. State-owned Global Times tabloid cited authorities in Yadong county of Tibet Autonomous Region as saying that 27 households with 124 people had “voluntarily moved from…Yadong county to Pangda village in September”.
In 2017, President Xi Jinping had also written a letter to Tibetan herdsmen living near the Arunachal Pradesh border to “set down roots” and safeguard “Chinese territory”.
Strategic affairs expert Brahma Chellaney pointed to the new villages near Bum La and said building border villages to “fortify claims and escalate cross-frontier intrusions is integral to China’s territorial aggrandisement”.
Sim Tack, a Belgium-based security analyst for Force Analysis, said the new villages were clearly part of a strategy to “push Chinese presence and strengthen claims on disputed areas”.
“We have seen the relocation of civilian populations into sparsely populated and disputed border regions by other countries, for example, by Morocco in Western Sahara. The Chinese are doing the same, so that they can infringe on the border and potentially build a case for their territorial claims,” he said.
A report released in September by Stratfor, a leading security and intelligence consultancy, had said China has more than doubled the number of airbases, air defence positions and heliports near the LoAC since 2017. China began building at least 13 new military facilities near the LoAC after the standoff at Doklam, and work on four heliports began after the current tensions in Ladakh, the report said.