New satellite images accessed by NDTV indicate that a Chinese village, constructed 9 km East of the Doklam plateau where Indian and Chinese forces faced off in 2017, is now fully inhabited with cars parked at the doorstep of virtually every home.
Significantly, the village, which Beijing calls Pangda, lies squarely within Bhutanese territory, details of which were first reported by NDTV in 2021.
Alongside Pangda is a neatly marked all-weather carriageway, part of China’s extensive land-grab in Bhutan. This cuts 10 km into Bhutanese territory, along the banks of the fast-flowing Amo Chu river.
For India, construction along the Amo Chu means that Chinese forces could end up getting access to a strategic ridge in the adjacent Doklam plateau. This would give them a direct line-of-sight to India’s sensitive Siliguri corridor, the narrow sliver of land that connects the northeast states with the rest of the country.
In 2017, Indian soldiers had physically prevented Chinese workers from getting to this ridge in Doklam called the Jhamperi. There is now a concern that China is trying to bypass Indian defences to the West by approaching the same ridge through this alternate axis.
”Pangda village and the ones to its North and South are a classic examples of the Chinese trying to establish their legitimacy over the Jhamperi ridge and the Doklam plateau,” says Lt General Praveen Bakshi (retired) who was India’s Eastern Army Commander when the Doklam face-off took place in 2017. Widespread Chinese efforts at constructing villages along frontiers that it disputes is ”essentially a manner of giving legitimacy to its territorial claims.”
Sources in the Army Headquarters told NDTV, “The Army maintains a continuous and seamless vigil on all activities along its borders, especially those that impinge upon the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the nation. For this, necessary mechanisms and safeguards to meet any contingencies are in place.”
The new satellite images, sourced from Maxar, indicate that a second village in the Amo Chu river valley is now virtually complete while China has stepped up construction of a third village or habitation further South. A bridge across the Amo Chu has been constructed at the site of this third village with excavation activity clearly visible. The foundations of six buildings here are visible.
“The speed and development of this remote area is noteworthy, underlining how China is extending its borders uncontested,” says Damien Symon, a geospatial intelligence researcher at The Intel Lab who has analysed the latest images. “The road construction activity in this distant, isolated sector highlights efforts taken by China to ensure all weather, uninterrupted connectivity to remote, new habitats across its frontier,” he adds.
Bhutan, a small land-locked nation, has virtually no ability to prevent China’s ‘salami-slicing’ of its territory. Bhutan’s Ambassador to New Delhi, Major General Vetsop Namgyal, declined to comment on the state of China’s construction in the Amo Chu Valley, indicating that Thimpu was involved in protracted border talks. India’s Ministry of External Affairs also had no comment on the new developments.
China’s village and road construction activity in the Amo Chu river valley lies approximately 30 km south of Beijing’s biggest land grab, which has been noticed in the last one year. Six settlements have been constructed in a previously uninhabited area in a 110-square km tract of land which Beijing contests. All of these settlements put pressure on Indian defences in Sikkim.
”China is stepping up construction of villages, roads and security installations on territory that belongs to Bhutan, thereby strengthening its offensive military capability against India,” says Dr. Brahma Chellaney, one of India’s leading China-watchers. ”Through such build-up, China is militarily positioning itself to threaten a particularly vulnerable section of India’s border overlooking a narrow corridor known as the ‘Chicken Neck’,” he says.
The developments on the Bhutan front come at a time when India continues to try to persuade China to withdraw from positions it has occupied in Ladakh since May 2020. There have been 16 rounds of talks so far with no substantial headway reported in the last round held on Sunday.