Indian Army chief General Manoj Mukund Naravane on Monday spoke to his Bhutanese counterpart Batoo Tshering on the phone, a development that comes after reports that China has built a village inside Bhutanese territory. “General MM Naravane #COAS had telephonic interaction with Lt Gen Batoo Tshering, #ChiefOperationsOfficer of the Royal Bhutan Army #RBA and discussed issues of bilateral defence cooperation,” the publicity wing of the Indian Army said in a Twitter post. Details of the conversation were not given out.
While conversations between the two are not unusual given the special relationship between the India and Bhutan – under which some Indian troops are stationed on Bhutanese territory – what is seen as significant is that it comes after reports of China pushing into border further into Bhutanese territory.
The telephonic conversation also follows China and Bhutan last month discussing a roadmap to expedite their boundary talks and agreeing to continue to maintain peace and tranquility along their border pending final settlement of their dispute, according to news reports.
It also comes after a PTI report on Friday said that China has systematically pumped in money for nearly a decade to build “villages of moderate prosperity” all along the 4,000 kilometer border of Tibet, a large part of which aligns with the disputed boundary with India. The aim of building the villages is believed to be for strengthening China’s border claims.
In 2017, Indian army soldiers had intervened when China brought in building equipment to construct a road at a point seen as a tri-junction between India, Bhutan and China. According to Indian officials, India and China had agreed during their border talks that any construction or territorial claims at tri-junctions between India, China and a third country would be resolved taking into account the views of all three countries. This was something that China had flouted by unilaterally trying to alter an existing status quo. The subsequent face off between India and China on Bhutan’s Doklam plateau lasted 73 days.
Earlier this month, a report in Foreign Policy magazine said that China was constructing three villages inside the territory of Bhutan. The construction activity included “66 miles of new roads, a small hydropower station, two Communist Party administrative centers, a communications base, a disaster relief warehouse, five military or police outposts, and what are believed to be a major signals tower, a satellite receiving station, a military base, and up to six security sites and outposts,” the Foreign Policy report said. “All the stations are in Gyalaphug and within Bhutan borders,” it said.
“China had announced the completion of new village construction at Gyalaphug in Tibetan or Jieluobu in the Southern part of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) in early May,” it said.
“The new construction is reflected as a part of a major drive by the Chinese President Xi Jinping since 2017 to fortify the Tibetan borderlands, a dramatic escalation in China’s long-run efforts to outmanoeuvre India and its neighbours along their Himalayan frontiers,” the Foreign Policy report added.
India and China have had a series of talks to settle their undemarcated border but with little success. Indian troops are said to be on alert across the border in northern India after New Delhi found Chinese troops had pushed into Indian territory in Ladakh a year ago. Since then troops of the two sides have been locked in an eye ball to eye ball confrontation in eastern Ladakh.
Last year, another news report in the South China Morning Post (SCMP) had spoken of another village — Pangda – that had come up in Bhutan close to Doklam. Bhutanese ambassador to India Vetsop Namgyel had dismissed this report. According to the SCMP report, Pangda was one of 628 “villages on the border” in the Tibet autonomous region, built according to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s strategy of “stabilising Tibet for the governance of frontier regions” and to meet the goal of building a xiaokang – or “moderately well off ” – society by 2021. In all, there are 241,835 residents and 62,160 households in these villages in 21 Himalayan border counties, from Nyingchi, Shannan and Shigatse to Ngari prefecture, the SCMP report said.