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Chinese PLA’s new expansion plans on Bhutan

After Ladakh and South China Sea, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is poised to open another front against Bhutan with a build-up in western and central part of Kingdom in a bid to settle the border on terms favourable to China in the forthcoming 25th round of boundary talks.

While Thimpu has been sensitised at the highest levels about the PLA threat, it is evident that Beijing will use PLA transgressions and encroachments in central Bhutan for a possible trade-off for its already encroached areas and claims in the western part of the kingdom in the forthcoming negotiations.

Bhutan is central to Indian national security as the country lies next to Silliguri corridor and any territorial compromise made by the Kingdom will have adverse impact on Indian defences in the area. Although India helped Bhutan in holding up against PLA during the 73 day stand off at Doklam plateau in 2017, the Chinese army has not stopped testing the armies of the two close allies in the area.

The Chinese territorial claims in Bhutan include 318 square kilometres in the western sector and 495 sq km in the central sector. Continuing with its expansionist polices under the grab of peaceful coexistence, the PLA is continuing to construct roads, build and improve military infrastructure and intimidate the miniscule Royal Bhutan Army through aggressive patrolling and access deniability.

According to diplomats based in Thimpu and New Delhi, the PLA post 2017 Doklam stand-off has intruded into five areas of western Bhutan and laid claim to a new boundary that extends 40 km approximately inside Bhutan, to the east of Chumbi Valley. The PLA has methodically built up infrastructure, improved defences, constructed roads, tracks, helipads for troop movement and last mile logistics.

In true “Middle Kingdom” style, the PLA patrols on August 13 and 24 crossed the main stream of Torsa nullah (Dolong Chu) into south Doklam and asked the Bhutanese herders to vacate the area near Raja rani lake in which they were grazing their livestock. The basic idea behind the PLA move is to force both India and Bhutan to agree that Chinese boundary extends to Gyemochen on Jhampheri ridge rather than on the Sinche la -Batang La axis, the true alignment of the trijunction. This is exactly what the PLA was attempting to do in 2017, when it was stopped by Indian Army in 2017.

According to national security planners, the PLA has increased surveillance in north Doklam by installation of surveillance cameras and continues with military technical upgradation on a large scale on Chinese side of the contested plateau. The rulers of Bhutan have been sensitised to the Chinese expansion plan with the former asking the Royal Bhutanese Army to prepare for a reaction plan by deployment of additional troops in order to prevent PLA from coming south of Torsa nullah or unilaterally alter the disengagement lines agreed to by the PLA in Doklam in 2017.

The PLA expansionist plans are not limited to western Bhutan only as last June China raised an objection against Bhutan’s Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary (SWS) Project on the contention that the sanctuary was located in a disputed border area. Spanning some 750 square kilometres, the sanctuary is located in the eastern Trashigang Dzongkhag of Bhutan, bordering India and China. This new claim may draw in India again into contest since the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary abuts Arunachal Pradesh which China also claims as its territory.

The development came as a surprise to Bhutan. China had never before claimed the land of the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary or, for that matter, any land in eastern Bhutan. Even more puzzling, Beijing had not mentioned the region during the 36 years of diplomatic talks that the two sides have held to resolve their boundary differences. Naturally, the Bhutanese government strongly opposed the Chinese claim questioning the sovereignty of Bhutan. While rejecting the claim of China, it has also conveyed that the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary is a sovereign territory of Bhutan and there is no dispute with anyone. The China’s Foreign Ministry, however, has a different perspective and made an official declaration, “the boundary between China and Bhutan has never been delimited. There have been disputes over the eastern, central and western sectors for a long time”.

It is notable that Chinese stand emerged in early June at a time when Beijing was involved in a series of military standoffs along its Line of Actual Control (LAC) with India in Ladakh. China’s new territorial claim in eastern Bhutan indicates Beijing’s intent and its sudden territorial claim reinforces the expansionist narrative that under the Communist rule of Xi Jinping.

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