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Near the China-Bhutan-India border, a new village is drawing attention to old disputes

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Images in October of the new Pangda village on the west bank of the Torsa River stirred controversy about possible border infringements but both China and Bhutan deny that there has been any wrongdoing. Photo: Weibo

Satellite images show that China is developing a village near Doklam, a border area with Bhutan and India where Indian and Chinese troops had a long stand-off three years ago.

Indian media as well as Australian and US-based think tanks claim that the Chinese construction of the village of Pangda, on the west bank of the Torsa River, is 2.5km (1.5 miles) inside the Bhutanese border.

Why is India concerned?

Although China and Bhutan may not appear to have any dispute over the latest development, Indian media has taken a special interest in the controversy, particularly after the 2017 stand-off at the nearby Doklam Plateau, which is just 9km from Pangda in Yadong county, Tibet.

The Indian official establishment regards the region to be strategically sensitive given its proximity and geography.

Chinese and Indian forces engaged in a 72-day stand-off in the area in 2017 after Bhutan requested India’s help with overlapping claims with China on the plateau.

For India, a strong Chinese grip over the region would allow better access for Chinese forces to the valuable Siliguri Corridor, known as the “Chicken’s Neck”, a prospect unpalatable to New Delhi. Sections of the corridor are only about 50km wide and India is worried it could lose control over its northeastern region in times of war if China becomes capable of exerting control over the corridor from Yadong.

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“The more China ramps up its construction in the tri-junction region, the stronger its threat to this corridor,” said a retired high-ranking Indian Army official who serves in a government post.

The official said the Indian establishment routinely kept a close eye on Chinese activities in the region. “This has been even more pronounced since the Doklam stand-off,” the official said

The official pointed to media reports in August citing open-source satellite imagery showing that China had stepped up its construction of military installations in areas about 50km from the site of the stand-off.

“If China continues constructions in the region, it shows that the 2017 stand-off was not really resolved,” the official added.

The Indian Ministry of External Affairs did not respond to requests for comment.

What does Bhutan say?

Bhutanese ambassador to India Vetsop Namgyel rejected the Indian reports about the village, saying “there is no Chinese village inside Bhutan”.

Bhutanese journalist Tenzing Lamsang said that the third-party reports were based on open-source information such as a Google Maps representation of the border, which was not accurate because demarcation negotiations were still continuing and the border line had not been disclosed or made official.

“Bhutan & China do not negotiate based on ‘Google Map’ but claim lines based on detailed cartographic maps & ground features,” Lamsang, editor of The Bhutanese newspaper, said on Twitter.

“Each side has its own maximalist claim lines. Importantly, these actual maps & claim lines are not available to Google.”

He added that neither the Bhutanese frontline troops nor diplomats, who have a record of quickly responding to minor Chinese encroachments in the area, had raised concerns over the issue.

The Chinese foreign ministry said the construction was in China’s territory.

What is Pangda?

Pangda is just one of 628 “xiaokang villages on the border” in the Tibet autonomous region, built according to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s strategy of “stabilising Tibet for the governance of frontier regions” and to meet the goal of building a xiaokang – or “moderately well off” – society by 2021.

In all, there are 241,835 residents and 62,160 households in these villages in 21 Himalayan border counties, from Nyingchi, Shannan and Shigatse to Ngari prefecture.

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Pangda village is one of 628 xiaokang – moderately well off – border villages in the Tibet autonomous region. Photo: Weibo

The villages were built as part of a plan introduced in 2017 by the Tibetan government for “defenders of sacred land and constructors of happy homes”.

The government earmarked 30.1 billion yuan (US$4.6 billion) to build new homes and infrastructure for transport, energy, water and communication and facilities for education, health and culture.

“This is to implement … the central policies of improving support to border residents, stabilising and consolidating the border,” the plan said.

The villages were mostly completed in October, according to state news agency Xinhua.

How big is the village?

Newly built Pangda village has 28 homes as well as two public buildings that host the village administration office, as well as facilities for shopping, public health, kindergarten and other community services. In October, 124 villagers in 27 households moved into the new homes at 2,140m (7,020 feet) altitude, descending from their original homes which were as high as 4,630m in altitude.

Pangda has extended China’s southernmost dwellings in the region by 10km.

The villagers plan to make a living from new businesses, such as tourism and fish farming. Some also work in border patrol.

“I won’t lose a singe inch of our land in my patrols,” villager Tashi Puci was quoted by Tibet Daily as saying.

Have other settlements caused controversy?

Another xiaokang village near the border with Nepal caused controversy this year. Last month, the Nepali opposition claimed Beijing had seized territory, moved boundary pillars and built structures about 1km inside Nepal but both Nepal and China denied there was any transgression.