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Beijing takes its South China Sea strategy to the Himalayas

The construction, recorded by satellite photos, followed a playbook China has used for years. It has brushed aside neighbours’ claims of sovereignty to cement its position in territorial disputes by unilaterally changing the facts on the ground.
By New York Times
,Just in time for its National Day in October, China completed construction of a new village high in the mountains where the Chinese region of Tibet meets the kingdom of Bhutan. A hundred people moved into two dozen new homes beside the Torsa River and celebrated the holiday by raising China’s flag and singing the national anthem.

“Each of us is a coordinate of the great motherland,” a border guard was quoted as saying by an official state news agency, China Tibetan News.

The problem is, these new “coordinates” are more than a mile inside what Bhutan considers its territory.

The construction, documented in satellite photos, followed a playbook China has used for years. It has brushed aside neighbours’ claims of sovereignty to cement its position in territorial disputes by unilaterally changing the facts on the ground.

It used the same tactics in the South China Sea, where it fortified and armed shoals claimed by Vietnam and the Philippines, despite promising the United States not to do so.

This year, China’s military built up forces in the Himalayas and crossed into territory that India claimed was on its side of the de facto border. That led to China’s bloodiest clash in decades, leaving at least 21 Indian soldiers dead, along with an unknown number of Chinese troops. The violence badly soured relations that had been steadily improving.

Even when challenged, China’s territorial grabs are difficult to reverse short of the use of force, as the Indian government has learned. Since the dispute at the border, Chinese troops have remained camped in areas that India once controlled.

“In the end, it reflects the consolidation of China’s control over the area it claims,” said M. Taylor Fravel, director of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an expert on China’s military.

Over the past year, China has moved aggressively against many of its neighbours, seemingly with little regard for diplomatic or geopolitical fallout. Its actions reflect the ambition of China’s leader, Xi Jinping, to assert the country’s territorial claims, economic interests and strategic needs around the world.

Xi often cites China’s historical grievances against foreign encroachment and colonisation, using its past to justify its aggressive strategic activities.

The construction of the Himalayan village suggests that China has extended a broader campaign to fortify its southern flanks to include Bhutan, a Buddhist nation of 800,000 people that popularised the concept of “gross national happiness.”

As the construction was underway on that long-disputed border, China added a new claim this summer to nearly 300 square miles of territory in the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary, a preserve on the other side of Bhutan from where the village was being built.

In pushing its boundaries, China appears to have brushed aside decades of quiet and ultimately fruitless talks to finalize the two countries’ border. A 25th round of talks this year was postponed because of the coronavirus.

“The Chinese obviously seem to be losing patience,” Tenzing Lamsang, editor of the newspaper The Bhutanese and president of the Media Association of Bhutan, wrote on Twitter.

The dispute stems from different interpretations of a treaty signed in 1890 by two now-defunct imperial powers, Britain as India’s colonial ruler and the Qing dynasty in China.

The new village is near the Doklam plateau, where the borders of China, India and Bhutan converge. The plateau was the site of a 73-day standoff between Indian and Chinese troops in 2017 that began over the construction of a road into Bhutanese territory. India, which is obliged to defend Bhutan under a long-standing security pact, pushed troops forward to halt the Chinese work.

Bhutan, which in recent years has felt squeezed between the two giants, poses no military threat to China. For China, control of the area would give its forces a strategic position near a narrow strip of land in India called the Siliguri Corridor. That area, which Indian military strategists also call the Chicken Neck, connects the bulk of India to its easternmost provinces bordering Bangladesh, Myanmar and China.

Lamsang noted that Bhutan has long had to defer to India’s security interests. In its repeated talks with the Chinese, Bhutan has so far been unwilling to make any territorial concessions along the western and central borders. “Given Bhutan’s refusal to concede in the talks or even agree to compromises by China we are now paying a price,” Lamsang wrote.

Neither the Bhutanese nor the Chinese foreign ministry responded to requests for comment.

Global Times, a Communist Party newspaper that often echoes a hawkish view among Chinese officials, ridiculed the claims that the newly built village was in Bhutan, blaming India for stoking tensions with China’s southern neighbours. A day later, the newspaper warned against “looming foreign forces backing the China-bashing campaign across the Himalayas.”

The exact location of the new village, called Pangda, emerged in a series of satellite images published recently by Maxar Technologies, a company based in Colorado. They showed that construction began late last year and was completed, it seems, not long before Oct. 1 — China’s National Day. China’s version of the border lies south of the village.

The images also showed extensive new road-building and the construction of what seem to be military storage bunkers, according to a Maxar spokesman, Stephen Wood. The bunkers are in undisputed Chinese territory, though, indicating that China has sought to build up its military presence along much of the Himalayan border area. The images of China’s new construction were earlier reported by NDTV, a broadcaster in India.

China has made no secret of the construction, as evidenced by several state media reports on the village. One recounted an inauguration ceremony Oct. 18 that was attended by senior officials from Shanghai, including Yu Shaoliang, deputy secretary of the city’s Communist Party committee.

In China, richer provinces often sponsor development projects in poorer regions, especially in Tibet and Xinjiang. China absorbed Tibet beginning in 1950, with the new communist government seeking to reassert sovereignty over the Tibetan people and territory that had been lost after the fall of the Qing dynasty. Although the Chinese called its annexation the “Peaceful Liberation of Tibet,” many Tibetans are unhappy with Chinese rule.

Fravel of MIT said that with its recent construction, China appeared to have backed away from potential compromises that it floated in earlier rounds of border talks with Bhutan, in which it offered to trade swathes of territory.

“Previous compromise ideas from the 1990s may no longer be on the table,” he said, “as China may be unwilling or unlikely to withdraw from territory where it has erected such infrastructure.”


Unfazed by China Threat, 10k Men Working on BRO Projects in Ladakh

By Ahmed Ali Fayyaz:

Notwithstanding violent skirmishes and killing of 20 Indian soldiers, including the Commanding Officer of a battalion, close to the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh’s Galwan Valley, over 10,000 labourers from Jharkhand are working hard on the communication infrastructure projects of Border Roads Organisation (BRO).

People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China has put up stiff opposition to India laying a strategically vital road in the Finger area around the Pangong Tso Lake as also to the construction of another road connecting the Darbuk-Shayok-Daulat Beg Oldie road in Galwan Valley.

“The Chinese have been working on multi-pronged strategies to stall work on some of our important roads and bridges but we are committed to go ahead and meet our deadlines. We are unfazed by the brutal killing of our soldiers,” said an officer at headquarters 14 Corps in Leh.

India has already decided not to stall any border infrastructure project in eastern Ladakh under the Chinese pressure.

In prompt response to a communication from the Ministry of Defence, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs had written to the Railways on 22 May 2020 to arrange for 11 special trains to ferry 11,800 workers from Jharkhand to Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh, as also to the states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, for road construction activity along the country’s borders.

Also Read: Tough Situation, Talking to India & China: Prez Trump on Galwan

6,000 Workers Arrived From Jharkhand in Special Trains: Officials
Around 8,000 of the 11,815 workers that the BRO had requested for recruitment were needed for Project Vijayak in Ladakh. Others were supposedly for Project Shivalik in Uttarakhand, Project Deepak in Himachal Pradesh and Project Beacon in Jammu and Kashmir.

Abdul Rashid War, labour commissioner in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir, maintained that he had no precise knowledge about transportation of the labourers coming in from Jharkhand and other states as the system of registration for all incoming and outgoing migrant workers had been put in place only three days back.

According to him, 48,681 stranded migrant labourers had returned to their home states since the Government of India permitted their inter-state transit after enforcement of the coronavirus lockdown in March.

Of them, more than 46,000 returned from Jammu and only 2,001 from Kashmir. In all, 33 shramik trains have operated between Udhampur-Jammu and New Delhi besides other states.

“In all, 10,760 workers had expressed their desire to return from Kashmir to their home states. But, subsequently, over 8,000 of them withdrew their submissions,” Mr War told The Quint, suggesting most of the outside workers had stayed back in the Valley as well as in the Union Territory of Ladakh, notwithstanding the coronavirus crisis and turbulence on the LAC.
Officials at Udhampur Railway Station in Jammu said that more than 6,000 workers had arrived from Jharkhand alone on about a dozen special trains and proceeded by bus straightaway to Ladakh under the arrangements of BRO. “Possibly, some have travelled via the Leh-Manali road through Himachal Pradesh,” said an official.

One of the district officers in Udhampur, the ultimate destination of all the special trains, said that the last train had reached there with 1,600 passengers 10 days back. He was not sure how many of them were Ladakh-bound labourers and how many were J&K residents returning from different states.

Differences Between Jharkhand Govt and BRO
The annual process of the transportation of workers from Jharkhand to J&K, Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand in April this year had stopped for some time due to differences between the government of Jharkhand and BRO.

Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren had objected to BRO’s decades-long system of picking the workers through local mates. This, according to Soren, had resulted in exploitation of the workers by a network of middlemen as there were complaints that 25 to 30 percent of the payments were going to the “mates”.
Also Read: Explained: What Is The LAC That Led To Deadly Galwan Clashes?

Soren had emphasised that BRO should recruit the workers directly after signing a Memorandum of Understanding with his government under the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act, 1979, which had no provision for middlemen.

The Jharkhand government had reportedly received reports that BRO used to transfer the workers’ wages to their bank accounts but the “mates,” who acted as the middlemen, used to retain ATMs of all the workers. The mates would withdraw money from the workers’ bank accounts by ATM and deduct 25-30 percent as “commission”.

It was in the thick of this controversy that the Ministry of Defence asked BRO to arrange over 8,000 workers of the Ladakh infrastructure projects “on war footing basis”.

BRO on Payment of Workers
The BRO, in turn, assured Chief Minister Soren, Chief Secretary Sukhdev Singh and Principal Secretary Labour Rajeev Arun Ekka that the organisation would sign the MOU with effect from year 2021, as it needs certain approvals.

It also acquiesced to Soren’s demand of increasing the wages for all workers by 15-20 percent from June 2020 and provide them Rs 10-15 lakh insurance cover.

BRO reportedly emphasised that some roads and bridges in Ladakh were to be constructed and completed with “urgency” in the interest of national security.
According to some reports, based on the Hardness Index of the area of work and the skill of the labourers, the payments will range from Rs 15,900-29,000 for Ladakh with effect from 10 June. It will be a marked increase from what labourers received earlier through “mates”.

In a letter, Brigadier Nitin K Sharma, DDG (TP) for Director General, Border Roads, said, “BRO is committed to safeguard the interest of the labourers who are (our) backbone. It has been the constant endeavour of BRO to ensure that the aspirations of its labourers are met and their legitimate wages are paid in time.”

The labourers would also be eligible for a host of other benefits like medical facilities, injury benefits, rations, clothing, accommodation, free conveyance, and fixing of wages via boards constituted at different projects for this purpose, he said in the letter.

Soren Accepts One-Time Waiver Request
Accepting the request for a one-time waiver, Chief Minister Soren said, “National Security is our priority and, at the same time, we have prioritised that honour, dignity and rights of our workers are guaranteed while serving the nation.”

“We are committed to the welfare of our workers and our tribal brothers have long served the nation and built its frontiers. We are ready to send our workers in the interest of national security but will not allow any compromise of their honour, welfare rights, benefits and dignity,” Soren said in May.

“National security is our priority and, at the same time, we have prioritised that the honour, dignity and rights of our workers are guaranteed, while serving the nation,” Soren said, asking BRO to take full care of the workers from next year.

Thousands of tribal workers from Jharkhand’s Santhal Pargana have been at the forefront to build the nation’s frontiers since the early 1970s. BRO has assured all safeguards for workers on key aspects such as wages, accommodation, rations, clothing and injury benefits.