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Enter the Dragon; By; Annunthra Rangan

Image Courtesy: Swarajya

Article Courtesy: India Legal

Article: 06/2024

Several Chinese villages along the LAC are getting occupied, posing a threat to the North-east. With Chinese territorial aggression growing, dialogue and confidence-building measures are the need of the hour.

An increasing number of uninhabited villages on the Indian side of the border may offer China opportunities to assert its territorial claims, particularly as it constructs new villages on disputed land. These villages provide amenities comparable to Tibetan towns and attractive economic incentives, with higher status and salaries for village-level Chinese Communist Party (CCP) cadres.

Che Dalha, chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region, and China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi have inspected the construction of these villages. Many have been completed, including one in Arunachal Pradesh’s Upper Subansiri district.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speech at the 19th Party Congress hinted at accelerating development in border areas, including the “xiaokang villages” programme in Tibet along the India-China border. According to China, these villages, intended to serve as a buffer with India, aim to consolidate Beijing’s control over remote areas and improve border security.

In 2017, Chinese authorities initially issued six “official” names for places in Arunachal Pradesh, a move perceived as retaliatory after the Dalai Lama’s visit to the region. The recent expansion of this list to 15 names, covering various districts in Arunachal, marked a broader trend. These locations include towns, mountains, rivers and a mountain pass, with the directive that all official Chinese maps must adhere to this Ministry of Civil Affairs list.

While largely symbolic, this naming strategy reflects a shift in China’s approach to territorial disputes. The renaming alongside the implementation of a new land border law, signals China’s efforts to assert sovereignty, augment national security and manage border affairs amid regional tensions, including those with India. China has been establishing 628 Xiaokang villages along India’s border with Tibet for more than five years. These villages, mostly double-storey buildings, are constructed along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), including in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh.

Their exact purpose remains unclear, but they are seen as dual-use infrastructure, raising defence concerns. China sees them as a tool to reinforce its claims over disputed areas along the LAC, a longstanding point of contention with India. New Delhi asserts the LAC to be 3,488 km, while China claims it to be around 2,000 km. In recent developments along the LAC, there has been a shift in the occupation of several of these model Xiaokang border defence villages.

Initially constructed by China in 2019 along the border with India’s northeastern region, these villages remained unoccupied until recently. According to officials familiar with the situation, certain villages opposite the Lohit Valley and the Tawang sector of Arunachal Pradesh are now being inhabited by residents. Reports indicate ongoing developments in various sectors such as roads, bridges and connectivity through passes. This development extends to regions like the Siang valley in Arunachal Pradesh.

The CCP openly acknowledges the construction of these villages. Unlike nomadic herders, these villages will serve as permanent watch posts for China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), with residents acting as additional eyes and ears along overlapping claim lines. To attract loyalists and cadres, the CCP invests in infrastructure and earmarked funds for the construction of homes and essential facilities under the programme. Furthermore, China is intensifying infrastructure development along the LAC bordering the northeast, particularly in areas like Tawang and the Siliguri Corridor.

China passed its first dedicated “Land Borders Law” on October 23, 2021, effective from January 1, 2022. The law aims to regulate border protection and integration of border areas. It covers delimitation and survey of land borders, management and defence of them, international cooperation with neighbouring countries and sealing the border during emergencies. The law assigns the PLA and Chinese People’s Armed Police Force to maintain security along the border.

With 62 provisions spread across seven chapters, the law addresses a wide range of concerns, including border delineation and defence, immigration and trade. Notably, Article 7 prioritises border education, whereas Article 22 requires the military to prevent and resist invasions or provocations.

India has expressed concern over the law’s potential implications on existing bilateral arrangements and the boundary question, especially given recent border tensions. China clarified it would abide by existing treaties, but concerns persist over its aggressive territorial claims and actions along the border. The law’s timing and language raise apprehensions, especially amid ongoing military stand-offs.

While the law itself may not drastically alter Sino-Indo relations, India’s reaction reflects valid concerns about China’s past actions and potential future implications of the law. It perceives the land border law as providing legal cover for Chinese military transgressions across the LAC in 2020. Additionally, it appears to empower civilian agencies to continue infrastructure development, including the construction of “frontier villages” in disputed areas along the border with India and Bhutan.

China’s ongoing construction of 628 such villages along the borders with India, Bhutan and Nepal aims to relocate residents, mainly herders, to these new settlements. Satellite images in November 2021 revealed a cluster of 60 newly built dwellings on territory disputed between India and China in Arunachal Pradesh, signalling China’s intent to solidify its claims. Despite historical Chinese control in the area since 1959, these civilian constructions further exacerbate tensions. India has expressed concerns over the implications of the new law on existing bilateral border arrangements, apogee the unilateral nature of China’s legislative actions.

India shares a contested 3,500-km border with China. Tensions persist as troops from both nations remain stationed near each other in Ladakh, approximately 1,100 km from Doklam, where a violent clash occurred in 2020. According to an Indian defence source who wanted to remain anonymous, India is closely monitoring Chinese construction activities along its borders.

India has initiated a substantial programme, allocating nearly $600 million, aimed at improving the development of villages in the northeastern regions adjacent to China. This action comes in response to China’s announcement of renaming 11 locations in the state, which it claims as part of its territory and refers to as Zangnan. This marks the third occasion of Beijing renaming places in the region, with similar actions occurring in 2017 and 2021.

Under the Vibrant Villages programme, 663 border villages are slated for transformation into modern settlements with comprehensive amenities, including 17 villages along the China border as pilot projects. In Arunachal Pradesh, specific villages like Zemithang, Taksing and Chayang Tajo are earmarked for development. Major highways such as the Trans-Arunachal Highway and the Frontier Highway are under construction, with plans to improve connectivity to Tawang through alternate axes. Additionally, efforts include enhancing connectivity to passes, establishing inter-valley connections and constructing helipads and advanced landing grounds across Arunachal Pradesh.

As China invests heavily in developing villages near the border, Indian villages nearby are witnessing increased out-migration due to a lack of job opportunities and inadequate healthcare. To counter this trend, India has launched the Vibrant Villages Programme to upgrade village infrastructure along the LAC in Himachal Pradesh, Ladakh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh.

Despite the programme’s implementation, migration rates from villages along the LAC in Uttarakhand, specifically in Uttarkashi, Chamoli and Pithoragarh districts, remain high. In Himachal Pradesh, Lahaul-Spiti and Kinnaur districts have experienced population declines due to out-migration. Similarly, in Arunachal Pradesh, districts like Kra Daadi, Kurung Kumey and Upper Subansiri are affected, with concerns about territorial integrity arising from Chinese incursions. In Sikkim, border villages lack basic amenities and suffer from inadequate infrastructure, leading to further migration.

China’s development of “xiaokang” villages in the Chumbi Valley adjacent to Sikkim adds complexity to the situation. In Ladakh, remote villages face abandonment due to connectivity issues and lack of facilities, prompting migration to urban centres like Leh. The declining population in border villages also poses security challenges amid India-China tensions.

China also has villages in other countries. Amid ongoing border discussions between China and Bhutan, Beijing is advancing the construction of border villages in disputed territories. Several villages have emerged in the mountainous region that separates the two countries, with some experiencing notable growth. Initially presented as a poverty alleviation initiative, the rapid expansion of these villages now serves a dual purpose for national security, according to CCP officials.

In a remote Himalayan village within the disputed border area, 18 new Chinese residents were ready to occupy their newly built homes. This development follows the signing of a “Cooperation Agreement” between China and Bhutan last year, outlining the roles and responsibilities of the Joint Technical Team on the Delimitation and Demarcation of the Bhutan-China Boundary.

In a not so surprising move in 2020, China claimed the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary in Bhutan during a meeting of the Global Environment Facility Council, sparking a response from Bhutan. The construction of these villages is part of China’s state-led efforts to alleviate poverty and enhance living conditions. However, they also serve as strategic outposts to strengthen national security. Gyalaphug, another border village east of Tamalung, saw significant expansion last year, with over 150 houses replacing a considerable portion of land. Satellite imagery depicts the new homes alongside existing dwellings and a Communist Party community centre, equipped with amenities like a small library.

Initially established with just two homes and no basic services in 2007, Gyalaphug underwent development as a model village from 2016 to 2018 as part of Xi Jinping’s poverty alleviation campaign. China incentivises residents with subsidies to inhabit these locations. The locations of these cross-border villages in the western Bhutan sector typically lack natural habitation due to their challenging living conditions. The construction of border villages in disputed territories, such as those between China and Bhutan, complicates the geopolitical landscape, raising concerns about sovereignty, territorial integrity and regional stability.

China’s assertive actions in neighbouring countries signal its intention to strengthen its influence and control over contested regions. In this context, ongoing border discussions between Beijing and its neighbours, as well as India’s proactive measures to fortify its border regions, are crucial for maintaining peace and stability in the region. However, the complex interplay of territorial disputes, military posturing and infrastructure development underscores the need for diplomatic dialogue, conflict resolution mechanisms and confidence-building measures to reduce the risk of escalation and promote cooperation among regional stakeholders.

(Ms. Annunthra K is a research officer at C3S. The views expressed are those of the author and does not reflect the views of C3S.)

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