A Chinese push to create civilian settlements along disputed borders in the Himalayan region has emerged as a major new concern for India as, analysts in India say, it replicates Beijing’s strategy to consolidate claims in the South China Sea.
The latest red flag has been raised by a new village built by China in an area disputed by the two countries along the border in India’s northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh.
The construction of the village in territory also claimed by India is a strategy to reinforce China’s claim to the area by altering facts on the ground, analysts say.
“The border villages are the Himalayan equivalent of China’s artificially created islands in the South China Sea and let us not forget that in the South China Sea, China has redrawn the geopolitical map without firing a single shot,” Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at New Delhi’s Center for Policy Research, said.
“Beijing advanced the expansionism not by directly employing force but through asymmetrical and hybrid warfare. That success in the South China Sea has emboldened China and it has taken that playbook to the Himalayan borderlands,” he said.
The new Chinese village is of particular concern to India because it lies along a sensitive, contested border. China claims the state of Arunachal Pradesh as part of southern Tibet, while India says the northeastern state is an integral part of India.
After Indian broadcaster NDTV reported in January, based on satellite images, that a new village had appeared, China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry defended its construction, saying the country’s “normal construction on its own territory is entirely a matter of sovereignty," and is “beyond reproach.”
“We have never recognized the so-called Arunachal Pradesh illegally established on the Chinese territory,” spokesperson Hua Chunying said.
The village of about 100 homes according to satellite images was built last year as the two countries were involved in a tense military standoff thousands of kilometers away, along the western Himalayan mountains in Ladakh. Although troops have pulled back, soldiers from both sides remain massed along other stretches of the Himalayas amid continuing territorial disputes on their 3,500-kilometer border.
The construction of the new village that has raised concern in India is part of a program by China to build hundreds of settlements along its Himalayan borders, according to several analysts, who say their development has been officially linked by Beijing to poverty alleviation and defense of the borders.
“They change the status of an area which was previously uninhabited to inhabited with people either from Tibet or mainland China. So they change the demography in a disputed area,” said Claude Arpi, a scholar on Tibet and an expert on India and China relations.
“They bring infrastructure, they bring roads, optical fiber cable, electricity, which can be used for civilian purposes and military purposes also. For India it is really a huge challenge because it has no way to counter it.”
Arpi said China’s development in remote mountain areas that have little economic activity shows they have a larger strategic purpose.
'A village-building spree'
Late last year, satellite images showed a new Chinese village close to the strategic junction of India, Bhutan and Nepal that some analysts said is inside Bhutanese-claimed territory. However, both Bhutan and China have denied that that is the case.
“China is on a village-building spree coupled with a major buildup of new military installations in the Himalayan borderlands and it is targeting not just India, but also Bhutan and Nepal,” according to Chellaney. “It is a difficult strategy to counter as it does not involve armed aggression. What it is doing is using villagers and herders at the vanguard and they are backed by regular army troops.”
Indian officials have made no specific mention of the new village along the Arunachal Pradesh border.
However, in Parliament last week, India’s minister of state for external affairs, Vellamvelly Muraleedharan said that India is aware China is developing infrastructure in the border regions opposite India in Tibet and Xinjiang autonomous regions, and that it keeps constant watch on all developments having a bearing on the country's security. He said India is also focusing on improving infrastructure in the border regions to facilitate economic development and meet the country's strategic and security requirements.
In recent years India has been speeding development of border roads and rail networks in a bid to catch up with China, which has rapidly increased connectivity to areas near its borders with India, Bhutan and Nepal.
However, China’s new civilian settlement presents India with a difficult set of challenges.
“It’s serious because it is what they call in strategic terms salami slicing. China always follows the same pattern – that is to present the neighbor or adversary with a fait accompli,” Arpi said.