Emboldened by his free extension in the South China Sea, the regime of Chinese President Xi Jinpings has stepped up efforts to replicate this pattern in the Himalayas. In particular, China is aggressively building many new villages in disputed border areas to expand or consolidate its control over strategically important areas that India, Bhutan and Nepal maintain within their national borders.
Highlighting the strategic implications of China’s willingness to populate these desolate and uninhabited border areas is its major accumulation new military installations there. The new facilities range from electronic warfare stations and air defense sites to underground munitions depots.
The frenzy of building militarized villages in China has renewed regional attention to X’s expansionist strategy at a time when, despite a recent disengagement in one area, tens of thousands of its soldiers remain locked in multiple clashes with Indian forces. Recurring skirmishes began last May after India discovered to its concern that Chinese forces had busy stealthily mountain peaks and other strategic viewpoints in its northernmost border regions of Ladakh.
China’s newly built border villages in the Himalayas are the equivalent of its artificially created islands in the South China Sea, whose Xis regime’s geopolitical map has been redrawn without firing a shot. The Xis regime advanced its expansionism in the South China Sea by hybrid war, carried out below the threshold of open armed conflict. This approach combines conventional and irregular tactics with small progressive territorial encroachments (or salami slicing), psychological manipulation, disinformation, law and coercive diplomacy.
Now China is applying this playbook in the Himalayan border regions. Based in Hong Kong Morning Message from South China, quoting a Chinese government document recently reported that China intends to build 624 border villages in the disputed areas of the Himalayas. In the name of poverty reduction, the Chinese Communist Party uproots Tibetan nomads and forces them to settle in new man-made border villages in isolated high-altitude areas. The CCP also sent ethnic Han Chinese party members to these villages to serve as resident monitors.
Creating a dispute where none previously existed is usually China’s first step in asserting a land claim, before it stealthily attempts to take over the coveted area. The Xis regime frequently uses civilian militias at the forefront of such a strategy.
So, just as China employed flotillas of civilian fishing boats backed by the Coast Guard for expansionist forays into the seas of southern and eastern China, so it sent herders and ranchers before the troops. of the regular army in the desolate border areas of the Himalayas to stir up disputes and then assert control. . Such an approach enabled him to nibble in the Himalayan territories, one pasture at a time.
In international law, a land claim must be based on continuous and peaceful exercise of sovereignty over the territory concerned. So far, China’s Himalayan claims have been rooted in an effective approach that seeks to to expand its annexation of Tibet to neighboring border countries. By building new border villages and transferring people there, China can now invoke international law in support of its claims. Effective control is an essential condition for strong land claim in international law. Armed patrols do not prove effective control, but the colonies do.
The speed and stealth with which China changed the facts on the ground in the Himalayas, regardless of geopolitical fallout, also reflects other considerations. Border villages, for example, will limit the use of force by opposing military personnel while helping Chinese intelligence gathering and cross-border operations.
Satellite pictures show how quickly such villages grew, as well as extensive new roads and military installations. The Chinese government recently justified the construction of a new village inside the sprawling Indian border state of Arunachal Pradesh by saying he never recognized Indian sovereignty over this region. And China’s territorial encroachments have not spared one of the world’s smallest countries, Bhutan, or even Nepal, which has a pro-Chinese communist government.
China designed its border village program after Xi called Tibetan shepherds in 2017 to settle in border areas and become guardians of Chinese territory. Xi said in his appeal that without peace in the land, there would be no peaceful life for millions of families. But Xis Tibet’s poverty reduction program, which has grown steadily since 2019, has focused on the cynical relocation of the poor to the territories of neighboring countries.
Echoes of China’s maritime expansionism spread to the Himalayan environment. Construction of Xis Island in South China Sea caused severe damage to coral reef environment, international arbiter says court. Likewise, the construction in China of villages and military installations in border areas threatens to wreak havoc on the ecologically fragile Himalayas, which is the source of the great rivers of Asia. Environmental damage is already apparent on the once pristine Doklam Plateau, claimed by Bhutan, which China has turned into a heavily militarized area since its capture in 2017.
Indian Army Chief Manoj Naravane recently claimed that Chinese salami-cutting tactics will not work. Yet even a major military power like India struggles to find effective ways to counter China’s territorial expansion along one of the world’s most inhospitable and treacherous borders.
China’s bulletproof assault based on using military-backed civilians to create new facts on the ground makes defense difficult, as it must be countered without resorting to open combat. Although India has responded with heavy military deployments, Chinese forces remain in control of most of the areas they seized nearly a year ago. So far, China’s strategy has proven to be just as effective on land as it has been at sea.
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