Analyst John Pollock’s recent observations highlight China’s ongoing construction of settlements along the contested border with Bhutan, stirring increased tensions in the Himalayan region.
China has accelerated settlement-building along its disputed border with Bhutan, with more than 200 structures, including two-storey buildings, under construction in six locations, according to satellite image analysis conducted for Reuters.
The images and analysis supplied to Reuters by U.S. data analytics firm HawkEye 360, which uses satellites to gather intelligence on ground-level activities, and vetted by two other experts, provide a detailed look into China’s recent construction along its frontier with Bhutan.
Construction-related activity in some of the locations along Bhutan’s western border has been under way since early 2020, with China initially building tracks and clearing out areas, based on material provided by satellite imagery firms Capella Space and Planet Labs, said Chris Biggers, the mission applications director at HawkEye 360.
Unlike satellite photographs, Capella uses synthetic aperture radar (SAR) technology to generate high-quality images in areas with cloud cover. The satellite bounces radio waves off a target area, and uses the reflections to create a detailed image.
Pollock pointed out new Chinese activity in Bhutan’s Jakarlung Valley, substantiated by an image from Maxar, which underscores the escalation of settlement projects in Bhutan’s north. “Courtesy of Maxar, new Chinese activity can be seen in the Jakarlung Valley, in the north of Bhutan,” Pollock highlighted in X post.
The villages also offer Beijing some strategic value, two of the experts say. The new construction is 9 to 27km from the Doklam area at the junction of the borders of India, Bhutan and China, where Indian and Chinese troops were locked in standoff for more than two months in 2017.
The settlements would allow China to better control and monitor far-flung areas, and potentially use them to establish security-focused installations, according to one expert and the Indian defence source.
The presence of multiple projects in both the Jakarlung Valley and the Menchuma Valley raises concerns that Thimphu might be on the brink of conceding this land to Beijing in an anticipated border agreement.
The emergence of new outposts in Bhutan’s remote Jakarlung Valley, situated in the Beyul Khenpajong region, signals the possibility of these areas becoming permanent Chinese territories. An imminent announcement on a border deal between Bhutan and China may solidify these changes, with Bhutan expected to concede the lands seized by China in both Jakarlung and the neighboring Menchuma Valley.
China’s territorial claims in Bhutan encompass four areas in the west, three in the north, and Sakteng in the east. Notably, the regions actively contested by China in the north are the Beyul Khenpajong and the Menchuma Valley, while official Chinese maps also incorporate the Chagdzom area as part of their territory.
These actions have raised concerns and sparked discussions regarding potential implications for Bhutan’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. The construction of settlements or outposts in these disputed areas, coupled with speculation about an impending border agreement between Bhutan and China, has intensified global attention and concern over China’s maneuvers in these regions.
The situation underscores the delicate geopolitical dynamics in the Himalayan region and the implications of China’s actions on regional stability, especially considering Bhutan’s historically strategic location between India and China.
Control over the remote Doklam plateau would potentially give China greater access to the adjoining “Chicken’s Neck” area, a strategic land strip connecting India to its northeastern region.
India shares an unsettled 3,500-km border with China. Troops from both countries remain deployed near each other in a separate border dispute in the Ladakh region – about 1,100km from Doklam – where they clashed in hand-to-hand combat in 2020.
Bhutan, a country of less than 800,000 people, has negotiated with Beijing for almost four decades to settle their 477-km border. An issue for Bhutan is not just territorial integrity but concerns over the potential security implications for India, which is the Himalayan kingdom’s main ally and economic partner.
The Bhutanese foreign ministry said Bhutan and China had agreed during the latest round of boundary negotiations in April 2021 to speed up resolving their differences. It declined to discuss the details of the plan to do so.
The satellite imagery suggests that neither India nor Bhutan has responded on the ground to China’s construction activities, Biggers said.
Nathan Ruser, a researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute research organisation, added that it would be a challenge for India and Bhutan to counter the Chinese construction.
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