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China-India border dispute: new village near Tibet sparks talk of eastern front

A screenshot from China's CCTV shows Chinese PLA soldiers stationed at the Sino-India border in Tibet in January. Photo: Handout

A report by Indian media that Chinese authorities had recently constructed a village near the eastern stretch of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) separating both countries has cast a spotlight on a potential new front emerging in the eight-month border stand-off between the two nuclear-armed neighbours.

New-Delhi based news channel NDTV on Tuesday said that based on satellite imagery, a village containing 101 homes in Arunachal Pradesh’s Upper Subansiri district was constructed between August 2019 and November 2020.

The report said that the “full-fledged village that can house thousands” was 4.5km within “Indian territory” – in reference to an unresolved territorial dispute over the area that India administers but China claims is part of South Tibet. China has since 2017 built villages in border areas in the Tibet autonomous region, which borders Arunachal Pradesh, as part of a US$4.6 billion plan to ensure political stability in the area.

The report comes after Beijing announced last month that it planned to build a “super dam” on one of the world’s largest rivers, which China calls the Yarlung Zangbo and India refers to as the Brahmaputra. The river flows downstream from mainland China into Arunachal Pradesh, with the proposed dam just kilometres away from the point where the river enters India. Experts have warned that the dam could negatively impact India’s water and food security as well as cause disasters like floods in the regions that it flows through – primarily Arunachal Pradesh and Assam in India.

Months earlier in September, amid thousands of Indian and Chinese troops facing off in the western Himalayan region of Ladakh, India sent troops to Anjaw in Arunachal Pradesh in what the military said it was part of a regular rotation of troops but which analysts claimed could raise the prospect of another looming face-off.

More recently, India renovated and upgraded its existing Advanced Landing Grounds (ALGs) in Arunachal Pradesh and plans to build two more. In early January, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi also awarded contracts to build six new roads in the border areas of Arunachal Pradesh. This month alone, India’s chief of defence staff, General Bipin Rawat, and chief of air staff, Marshall R.K.S. Bhaduria, have visited forward bases and ALGs in Arunachal Pradesh. India is also planning to build a railway to connect Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh with Bhalukpong, a small town in the same region.

In December, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, a paramilitary unit posted in forward areas along the India-China border, said that its troops in Arunachal Pradesh were on “very high” alertness levels and that “no one” could surprise them.

On Tuesday, after the NDTV report was released, India’s External Affairs Ministry issued a statement saying it had been keeping “constant watch” on developments. It added that India was also stepping up border infrastructure projects including roads and bridges to provide “much needed connectivity to the local population”.

Kiren Rijuju, a minister for youth affairs and sports in the Modi government and member of parliament from Arunachal Pradesh, tweeted that the locations have been controlled by China “since very-very long”, while slamming allegations by opposition parties that this was on Indian-administered land.

However, Sameer Patil, a fellow with the international security studies programme at the Mumbai-based think tank Gateway House, said it was “evident” that Arunachal Pradesh could be the next flashpoint for tensions between the two countries, after Ladakh.

“The longer-term Chinese strategy seems to be around this region because the construction of the village has been done over a year. India’s response to this construction – to upgrade construction in the region – also indicates this.”

The dispute over the hilly, forested region of Arunachal Pradesh is centuries old and stems from a 1914 agreement between Tibetan authorities and British-ruled India to determine the boundaries between them. The exercise resulted in the “McMahon Line” – named after the British administrator who proposed it – but Beijing’s rejection of the demarcation line, which forms part of the 3,488km LAC, has led to clashes marked by violence and bloodshed.

Indian and Chinese troops fought in Arunachal Pradesh during the 1962 war between the two countries, and troops faced off again in 1986 on the banks of the Sumdorong Chu, a small river in the state, in a squabble that lasted several years.

The head of the Indian Army, General M.M. Naravane, last week referred to the Sumdorong Chu confrontation when he said that India was “ready to hold its ground” if the current stand-off lasted as long.

The spot where the new Chinese village now stands in Upper Subansiri district was the site of a clash between troops of two countries in 1959, said retired Lieutenant General J.S. Bajwa, who served as the chief of staff in India’s Eastern Command from 2010 until 2012, under which Arunachal Pradesh falls.

“Indian troops used to man this post called Longju, but the Chinese overran this post and established their presence here,” Bajwa said. “Since that day, the area has been controlled by the People’s Liberation Army.”

Bajwa said the construction of the Chinese village was unlikely to have been a surprise for the Indian government and military, pointing out that an Indian base was nearby and so the construction would have been known to Indian authorities.

But Ninong Erring, a former member of the Indian parliament from Arunachal Pradesh, who also served as a minister for minority affairs in the Congress-led Indian government from 2012 to 2014, said China’s continued construction activity was indeed a threat to Indian security.

“All along the LAC in Arunachal Pradesh, the Chinese have built so many buildings and homes. In fact, in areas like Anini, the Chinese are building roads right up to the Indian border, less than 100km from our military bases,” he said.

While infrastructure construction by India in the Ladakh region was a key factor that sparked the current military crisis between the countries – beginning with a brutal fist-fight between troops last May – Bajwa said it was unlikely India would counter the construction of the new village with any kind of infrastructural build-up of its own in Arunachal Pradesh.

“The Chinese objection to Indian infrastructure [in Ladakh] was because it was military infrastructure, whereas here, the Chinese can claim that this is meant for civilian use,” Bajwa said, though he added that such infrastructure would “ultimately” be used by the Chinese for military purposes.

India, however, is continuing to make strategic moves in Ladakh, and recently procured a dozen fast patrol boats for surveillance in water bodies along the India-China border in the region, especially on Pangonglake, one of the major flashpoints in the current stand-off. It is also building 83 military jets worth US$656 million, which are expected to be put into operation within the next five years.