Blog written by Robert Barnett and originally posted by Foreign Policy at: https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/05/07/china-bhutan-border-villages-security-forces/
Since 2015, a previously unnoticed network of roads, buildings, and military outposts has been constructed deep in a sacred valley in Bhutan.
In October 2015, China announced that a new village, called Gyalaphug in Tibetan or Jieluobu in Chinese, had been established in the south of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). In April 2020, the Communist Party secretary of the TAR, Wu Yingjie, traveled across two passes, both more than 14,000 feet high, on his way to visit the new village. There he told the residents—all of them Tibetans—to “put down roots like Kalsang flowers in the borderland of snows” and to “raise the bright five-star red flag high.” Film of the visit was broadcast on local TV channels and plastered on the front pages of Tibetan newspapers. It was not reported outside China: Hundreds of new villages are being built in Tibet, and this one seemed no different.
Gyalaphug is, however, different: It is in Bhutan. Wu and a retinue of officials, police, and journalists had crossed an international border. They were in a 232-square-mile area claimed by China since the early 1980s but internationally understood as part of Lhuntse district in northern Bhutan. The Chinese officials were visiting to celebrate their success, unnoticed by the world, in planting settlers, security personnel, and military infrastructure within territory internationally and historically understood to be Bhutanese.
This new construction is part of a major drive by Chinese President Xi Jinping since 2017 to fortify the Tibetan borderlands, a dramatic escalation in China’s long-running efforts to outmaneuver India and its neighbors along their Himalayan frontiers. In this case, China doesn’t need the land it is settling in Bhutan: Its aim is to force the Bhutanese government to cede territory that China wants elsewhere in Bhutan to give Beijing a military advantage in its struggle with New Delhi. Gyalaphug is now one of three new villages (two already occupied, one under construction), 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 that China has constructed in what it says are parts of Lhodrak in the TAR but which in fact are in the far north of Bhutan.
This involves a strategy that is more provocative than anything China has done on its land borders in the past. The settlement of an entire area within another country goes far beyond the forward patrolling and occasional road-building that led to war with India in 1962, military clashes in 1967 and 1987, and the deaths of 24 Chinese and Indian soldiers in 2020. In addition, it openly violates the terms of China’s founding treaty with Bhutan. It also ignores decades of protests to Beijing by the Bhutanese about far smaller infractions elsewhere on the borders. By mirroring in the Himalayas the provocative tactics it has used in the South China Sea, Beijing is risking its relations with its neighbors, whose needs and interests it has always claimed to respect, and jeopardizing its reputation worldwide.
China’s multilevel construction drive within Bhutan has gone almost completely unnoticed by the outside world. Bhutan must know, and other governments in the region are likely to be aware that China is active on Bhutan’s northern borders but may not have realized the full extent of that activity or have chosen to remain silent. Yet information on the drive has been hiding in plain sight in official Tibetan- and Chinese-language newspaper reports published in China, on Chinese social media, and in Chinese government documents. There is one catch to these Chinese reports: They never mention that this construction work, confirmed by satellite imagery, is taking place in disputed territory, let alone in Bhutan.
China has tried building roads into Bhutan before—but mainly in its western areas and with limited success. In 2017, China’s attempt to build a road across the Doklam plateau in southwestern Bhutan, next to the trijunction with India, triggered a 73-day faceoff between hundreds of Chinese and Indian troops and had to be abandoned. Last November, an Indian media outlet reported that a village called Pangda had been built by the Chinese government in subtropical forest just inside the southwestern border of Bhutan. (China denied the claim.) It’s possible, however, as some analysts have speculated, that Bhutan had quietly ceded that territory to China but not announced it to the outside world.
Work on Gyalaphug, however, began five years earlier than Pangda, is far more advanced in its development, and involves the settlement of entire districts, not just a single village. The Gyalaphug case, however, involves another dimension, one that is of far greater sensitivity: It is in an area of exceptional religious importance to Bhutan and its people.
That area, known traditionally as the Beyul Khenpajong, is one of the most sacred locations in Bhutan, where the majority of the population follows Tibetan Buddhist traditions. The word Beyul means “hidden valley,” a term used in traditional Tibetan literature for at least seven areas high in the Himalayas ringed by mountain ridges and, according to legend, concealed by the legendary tantric master Padmasambhava in the eighth century and only discoverable by those with heightened spiritual powers. The Beyul Khenpajong is the most famous such valley in Bhutan, described in Bhutanese literature and myth since at least the 15th century. Jigme Namgyal, the father of the first king of Bhutan’s current ruling dynasty, was born on the eastern perimeter of the Beyul, only 75 miles as the crow flies northeast of Bhutan’s now-capital, Thimphu. Given its incomparable importance for the Bhutanese and for Tibetan Buddhists in general, no Bhutanese official would ever formally relinquish this area to China, any more than Britain would yield Stonehenge or Italy Venice.
Foreign Policy contacted the spokesperson for the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, the Bhutanese mission to the United Nations and the prime minister’s office, and both the Chinese Embassy in Washington and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing for a response to this story. We received no response from the Chinese government, which rarely comments on stories before publication. The Indian government said it had no comment. The Bhutanese government did not respond to multiple inquiries.
In the face of raw Chinese power, Bhutan appears to have chosen to maintain what the Bhutanese political commentator Tenzing Lamsang has previously characterized as a “disciplined silence.” As a “small country stuck between two giants,” he said, Bhutan’s strategy is “to avoid unnecessarily antagonizing either side.”
Apart from wandering ascetics, seasonal nomads, and a handful of refugees from Tibet in the late 1950s, the Beyul has been uninhabited for centuries. At an average altitude of 12,000 feet, until now it has had no buildings, roads, or settlements apart from two small temples abandoned decades ago, stone huts for shepherds, and perhaps three basic shelters or campsites used by Bhutanese frontier troops. Entering the Beyul from Tibet, now part of China, involves a journey across passes the height of Mont Blanc; few other than mountaineers would normally attempt it. The second enclave now being settled by China in northern Bhutan is even higher: The Menchuma Valley, 1.2 miles to the east of the Beyul and 19 square miles in size, is at an altitude of 14,700 feet at its lowest point, apart from one ravine. Like the Beyul, it lies inside the Kurtoe subdistrict of Lhuntse and until now has never had settlements, roads, or buildings.
Bhutan’s border guards are posted in the Beyul each summer, but their task is primarily to defend Bhutanese herders in encounters with their counterparts from Tibet. From the mid-1990s onward, these encounters became more aggressive: The Bhutanese accuse the Tibetans of cattle rustling; collecting timber; constructing shelters; driving huge, consolidated flocks of yaks across traditional Bhutanese grazing lands; and demanding that Bhutanese herders pay taxes to them for grazing there.
By 2005, this led Bhutanese herders to withdraw to the south of the Beyul, and the Bhutanese soldiers posted there, who depend on the herders for supplies, went with them to the south, where neither they nor the herders would have known of the construction work in the northern Beyul. In Thimphu, officials probably assumed that these clashes between herders were minor provocations by Beijing. Such incidents had become commonplace in all the areas of Bhutan claimed by China, and there was no precedent suggesting they might escalate to major construction, still less settlement; it could hardly have been imaginable that China would take such a step.
Today all of the Menchuma Valley and most of the Beyul are controlled by China. Both are being settled. Together, they constitute 1 percent of Bhutan’s territory; if it were to lose them, it would be comparable to the United States losing Maine or Kentucky. If Bhutanese troops try to reenter these areas, they will have to do so on foot and, given the lack of infrastructure on their side, would be immediately beyond the reach of supplies or reinforcements. The Chinese troops would have a barracks close at hand, would be motorized, and would be only three hours’ drive from the nearest town in China.
China’s claim to these areas is recent. Both the Beyul and the Menchuma Valley were shown as parts of Bhutan on official Chinese maps until at least the 1980s. They still appeared as parts of Bhutan on official Chinese tourist maps and gazetteers published in the late 1990s. Still today, even the maps published on China’s official national mapping site, tianditu.gov.cn, vary widely as to which parts of the Beyul are claimed by China and which are not.
China has not publicly explained or even mentioned its claim to the Menchuma Valley, but since the 1980s it has spoken volubly of its claim to the Beyul. At that time, according to a number of Chinese writers and activists, Chinese officials discovered a ruling by the Jiaqing Emperor (reigned 1796-1820) granting grazing rights in the Beyul to herders belonging to the monastery of Lhalung in western Lhodrak in southern Tibet. This document has yet to be seen publicly and has not so far been found in Tibetan records. It may exist, but reciprocal cross-border grazing was the norm in the Himalayas and in the Beyul before the Chinese invasion and annexation of Tibet in the 1950s.
China has long renounced the 19th-century claims by Qing emperors—repeated by Mao Zedong in the 1930s—to sovereignty over Bhutan and other Himalayan states. Relations between China and Bhutan have been amicable since the early 1970s, when Bhutan supported China’s entry into the United Nations. As one Chinese official put it recently, the two countries are “friendly neighbors linked by mountains and rivers.” But as with China’s other Himalayan neighbors, the legacies of colonialism and conflict have left behind uncertain borders. Since 1984, China and Bhutan have held 24 rounds of talks to settle their disagreements over those mountains and rivers, and this April they agreed to hold the 25th round “at an early date.” (The 24th round was held in August 2016, just before the main construction work in the Beyul began.) Bhutan has shown remarkable flexibility in these talks—early on, probably in the 1980s, Thimphu quietly relinquished its claim to the 154-square-mile Kula Khari (sometimes written as Kulha Kangri) area on its northern border with China, describing that claim as due to “cartographic mistakes.”
In December 1998, China signed a formal agreement with Bhutan, the first and so far only treaty between the two nations. In that document, China recognized Bhutan’s sovereignty and its territorial integrity and agreed that “no unilateral action will be taken to change the status quo on the border.” The construction of roads, settlements, and buildings within the Beyul and the Menchuma Valley is clearly a contravention of that agreement.
China’s interests in the Beyul are not primarily about its relations with Bhutan, which Beijing appears to view in terms of opportunities it can offer China in its strategic rivalry with India. In part, Beijing wants Bhutan to open full relations with China, which would allow it to have a diplomatic presence in Thimphu. This would offset India’s influence in Bhutan, an aim that China has largely achieved in Nepal. Bhutan, however, conscious of the fragility of its landlocked position between the two giants of Asia, has continued to avoid opening full relations with any major power apart from India, with which it has long been allied.
But China’s principal aim in the Beyul is clear from its stance in talks with the Bhutanese government: Ever since 1990, China has offered to give up its claim to 495 square kilometers (191 square miles) of the Beyul if Thimphu will give China 269 square kilometers (104 square miles) in western Bhutan. Those areas—Doklam, Charithang, Sinchulungpa, Dramana, and Shakhatoe—lie close to the trijunction with India and are of far greater strategic importance to China than the Beyul, offering China a foothold only 62 miles from India’s geographic weak point, the 14-mile-wide Siliguri Corridor that connects the Indian mainland to its northeastern territories.
Bhutan initially accepted in principle the Chinese offer of a deal over the Beyul. But negotiations stalled over the details of territory China wanted in the west, and Chinese pressure began to increase. In 2004, the incursions escalated: A top Bhutanese official said Chinese soldiers had come to Tshoka La at the southern tip of the Beyul. That summer, the Chinese began building six roads close to Bhutan’s western borders; four of the roads crossed into Bhutan. When Bhutan protested, China replied that it was “overreacting” but agreed as a gesture of goodwill to stop the road-building; it resumed a year later. For three years from 2006, there were no border talks between the two governments. During this time, there were at least 38 incursions by Chinese soldiers across Bhutan’s western borders and seven formal protests by Thimphu to Beijing.
Chinese officials knew the Beyul to be of great spiritual significance to the Bhutanese. Despite offers from China of substantial economic aid, however, Bhutan did not accept the trade-off: It could not afford to prejudice relations with India. In 2013, before it began construction work in the Beyul, China arranged a joint survey of the valley by Chinese and Bhutanese experts. But this, too, did not lead Thimphu to accept the deal. China stepped up pressure in the western sector further, leading to the Doklam standoff in 2017. Today, China’s offer to trade the Beyul for the western border areas still stands. But with little likelihood of Bhutanese concessions, the Chinese presence in the Beyul could well become permanent.
In Chinese, the term for so-called salami-slicing tactics—slowly cutting off piece by piece of other nations’ territory—is can shi, or “nibbling like a silkworm.” It’s serious business: The belief that India was gnawing at fragments of China’s territory drove Mao to launch the 1962 Sino-Indian War. And the converse of the phrase is jing tun, “swallowing like a whale.” The small bites of the silkworm can turn into crushing jaws.
For 20 years, China’s nibbling in the Beyul was carried out not by soldiers but by four Tibetan nomads. They were from a village called Lagyab, 4 miles north of the border with Bhutan, and their families had grazed in the Beyul in summers before China annexed Tibet in the 1950s. Since then, as with millions of other Tibetans, their lives, education, and economic prospects have been determined by the Chinese state, and in 1995, they agreed when called on by their village leader to dedicate themselves to the motherland: They were to go and live year-round in the Beyul. Together with 62 yaks, they walked over the passes and set up camp at a site called Mabjathang on the northern bank of the Jakarlung, one of the two major valleys in the Beyul. Scores of articles, interviews, and photographs have since appeared in the Chinese press celebrating the four nomads’ dedication to recovering what “has been the sacred land of our country since ancient times.” They were to remain in the Beyul for the next quarter-century, as China tried and failed to get Bhutan to accept the border trade-off.
In following summers, other herders joined them to carry border markers up to peaks and to paint the Chinese national flag, the hammer and sickle, or the word “China” in Chinese on prominent rocks within the Beyul. On one occasion in 1999, 62 of the herders came together and drove 400 yaks down to the far south of the Beyul to reinforce China’s claim to the area. These actions were the basis of China’s initial pressure on Bhutan to accept its offer of a package deal.
In 2012, China sent a team to carry out the first survey of land and resources in the Beyul. “Since history,” the surveyors wrote in a report for China’s State Forestry Administration on arriving in the Beyul, “no one knows the status of its resources; it has been shrouded in a veil of mystery.” A week later, when the survey was completed, they declared that the Beyul was “no longer a mysterious place.” The settlement of the Beyul was about to begin.
In October 2015, workers were brought in from Tibet and parts of China to begin building the road that by mid-2016 would become the first known instance of construction across Bhutan’s northern border and first road to enter the Beyul. Linking Lagyab with Mabjathang, the 29-mile road crossed a 15,700-foot-high mountain pass called the Namgung La into Bhutan. It took two years to complete and cost 98 million yuan ($15 million), according to the Tibet Daily, but cut the journey time from nine hours on foot or horseback to two by car or truck. In 2016, a communications base station was built in Mabjathang. That same year, work began on the construction of buildings at a site 1.2 miles upriver from Mabjathang and 2.5 miles south of the Bhutanese border with Tibet. Officials named the site Jieluobu in Chinese. They seemed unsure what it should be called in Tibetan, writing its name sometimes as Gyalaphug and at other times as Jiliphug. By 2017, as the first houses at Gyalaphug were completed, the number of residents rose to 16.
In January 2017, China’s then-ambassador to India, Luo Zhaohui, visited Bhutan. “I bring a deep appreciation from the Chinese people,” he said. “I am so happy to see the talks on the border have made progress. We maintained peace and tranquility on our border area, and the discussion is going on.” Some 112 miles to the northeast, the road to the Beyul was nearing completion, and Chinese construction crews had started work on building Gyalaphug. In 2017 alone, the Chinese government spent 45 million yuan ($6.9 million) on infrastructure construction in the village, where the remoteness makes everything hugely expensive; getting a single bag of cement to Gyalaphug costs 450 yuan ($69).
In October 2018, the village was formally opened, and four new residents arrived, bringing the total to 20. By January 2021, four more blocks had been built for residents, each containing five identical homes, with 1,200 square feet per household. Another 24 households were due to move in during 2020.
Gyalaphug was one of more than 600 new villages being built as part of a 2017 policy of “well-off border village construction” in Tibet, though as far as is known the others lie just within China’s borders. Official rhetoric requires their residents to make “every village a fortress and every household a watchpost” and terms their residents “soldiers without uniforms”—their primary task is to guard China’s borders. Satellite images and media photographs show that Gyalaphug is dominated by two double-storied administration buildings, the largest of which has been purpose-built for Communist Party meetings and village assemblies, following an obligatory design across the Tibetan Plateau. The one in Gyalaphug has a signboard on the roof with a hammer and sickle in yellow and the words “The Party and Serve-the-Masses Center” in Chinese and, in much smaller lettering, Tibetan. A giant painting of China’s national flag covers the endwall of one building; a flagpole, perhaps 40 feet high, stands in the center of the village; and a large red banner says, “Resolutely uphold the core position of General Secretary Xi Jinping! Resolutely uphold the authority of and centralized and unified leadership by the Party Central Committee!”
The actual population of the village is higher than shown in official figures because of temporary residents. They include an estimated 50 construction workers, technical advisors, and security forces, many of them Chinese rather than Tibetans. A special unit from the police agency overseeing borders is based in or near the village. The most important task of this police agency, one officer stationed on the western Tibetan border told a Chinese news agency, is to catch “illegal immigrants”—meaning Tibetans trying to flee to India or Nepal.
The village residents are required to form a joint defense team, probably with the border security police, that carries out patrols of neighboring mountains. A village-based cadre work team lives in the village, with cadres posted there for a year or more at a time, to provide “guidance” to the residents’ village committee and the village branch of the Chinese Communist Party. The team carries out political education of the villagers and helps with practical needs, such as improving techniques for growing mushrooms and vegetables in greenhouses in the village.
In mid-2017, China built the first road across the Bod La and into the Menchuma Valley. By 2019, 20 households had already taken up residence, according to the Indian defense analyst Jayadeva Ranade. As of this January, 50 units of housing were visible on satellite images of the village, and Phase 3 of the construction work had begun. On Feb. 9, an article in the Tibet Daily praised the new residents: They are insistent, it said, on carrying out regular border patrols.
Another village is under construction in the Beyul beside the military outpost at Dermalung, 6.8 miles southeast of Gyalaphug, just after the Jakarlung takes a sharp turn to the south. Like Menchuma, it will be a “Beside-the-Border Relocation Village” that will be paired with a nearby outpost for border guards.
By August 2020, as a new road was being built eastward along the upper Jakarlung, an unidentified compound appeared on satellite imagery 5.6 miles to the east of Gyalaphug. The compound has seven dormitory-style single-story buildings with red roofs arranged around a square, which could house 100 or more people—a characteristic pattern of Chinese barracks. Chinese media have so far given no details about the military units in the Beyul, but this compound is likely to hold troops from China’s Second Border Defense Regiment, which is responsible for guarding the borders in Lhokha (Shannan in Chinese), including Lhodrak. Only in April 2020 did evidence appear in Chinese media of troops on active duty in the Beyul—a soldier with a rifle standing guard beside the TAR party secretary, Wu Yingjie, at the military outpost on the Ngarab La, the pass just to the south of Gyalaphug that leads to the western part of the Beyul, the Pagsamlung Valley.
Elsewhere in the Beyul, smaller military or police outposts can be identified from satellite images or Chinese media photographs. Two are on the Ngarab La (in tents rather than buildings); one each at Gyalaphug, Menchuma, and Dermalung; and two others are believed to be in the Pagsamlung, as well as two larger compounds on the north bank of the upper Jakarlung. High on a ridge overlooking Gyalaphug from the north, a giant structure of some kind, possibly a signals tower, has been erected. Some 1.9 miles southwest of the Ngarab La, what appears to be a satellite receiving station has been built, the first instance of security infrastructure in the Pagsamlung.
So far, Chinese troops cannot reach China’s claimed border with Bhutan at the southern tip of the Beyul except by foot. But work has nearly been completed on a strategic road heading southwest from Gyalaphug across the Ngarab La. A second road from the upper Jakarlung leads southwest across the mountains to what some unofficial Chinese sources say is a military outpost next to the deserted temple of Lhalung Lhakhang, also on the bank of the Pagsamlung, 9 miles south of the Bhutanese border. These roads will provide the Chinese with motorable access to the Pagsamlung, allowing them to get troops and construction crews down to the far south of the Beyul; once that is done, we are likely to see permanent border posts along China’s claim line. None of these roads or military sites existed five years ago. There is little that Bhutan can do, given that the 1998 agreement, in which both sides undertook not to alter the status of disputed areas, has been shredded by Beijing’s actions on the ground.
It is hard to fathom China’s rationale for its shift from nibbling at a neighbor’s territory to swallowing portions of it wholesale. If Bhutan declines to risk its ties with India and rejects China’s package deal, this shift by Beijing will have seriously damaged a previously amicable relationship for very little gain. Indian convictions that China aims to acquire its border territories will be strengthened; people throughout the Himalayas, faced with the seizure of one of Bhutan’s most sacred areas, will be skeptical of Chinese promises and intentions; and anxiety will percolate within the international community as to China’s ambitions regarding other nations’ territory.
In the past, annexation has not worked well for China as a solution for territorial disputes, especially when deep-seated cultural and religious values are at stake, as the case of Tibet has shown. If not reversed, the ongoing annexations of the Beyul and the Menchuma Valley look set to add yet more costs to China of its attempts to project power across its borders.
Additional research for this piece was conducted by Matthew Akester, Ronald Schwartz, and two Tibetan researchers who asked to remain anonymous as part of an ongoing collaborative research project into policy developments on Tibet. Additional fact-checking was provided by Nathan Ruser.
This article appears in the Summer 2021 print issue.
China’s new tactic of cross-border settlement in the Himalayas has internal repercussions, too: It has required huge sacrifices by Tibetans and others living in the borderlands. Read about the human cost of China’s hardball bargaining in Part 2 of this story, coming soon.
Robert Barnett is a writer and researcher on modern Tibetan history and politics. He is a professorial research associate at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, an affiliate researcher at King’s College London’s Lau China Institute, and a senior research fellow with Hong Kong Baptist University. He was the founder-director of modern Tibetan studies at Columbia University in New York.