The Kingdom of Bhutan and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) do not maintain official diplomatic relations, and ties have been historically tense. China shares a border of 470 kilometers with Bhutan and Beijing’s territorial disputes with Thimphu have been a source of potential conflict. Since the 1980s, the two governments have conducted regular talks on border and security issues aimed at reducing tensions.
As part of a major construction drive by Chinese President Xi Jinping, Beijing has been taking up multilevel construction in the territory internationally and historically understood as Bhutanese since 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), says Robert Barnett, the author of the investigative Foreign Policy report.
It was revealed from the Foreign Policy report on May 7 that China is building three villages (including Gyalaphug), “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,” all in Bhutanese territory.
China does not 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 as per the Foreign Policy report.
Reportedly, Gyalaphug is now one of three new villages; two already occupied and one under construction. China’s unilateral construction of roads, settlements and buildings within Bhutan’s territory contradicts the 1998 peace agreement signed by the two countries. That agreement promised to “maintain peace and tranquillity on the Bhutan-China border areas.” The agreement was groundbreaking because of China’s explicit acknowledgement of Bhutan as a sovereign country.
The agreement further stated, “China fully respects the territorial integrity and independence of Bhutan.” What makes matters more complicated for Bhutan is that the area in which Gyalaphug lies is not just ordinary territory. Rather, it is in an area of extraordinary religious significance to the people of Bhutan.
In 2017, Beijing’s attempt to build a road in the Doklam plateau, a trijunction between India, China and Bhutan, was met with a 73-day faceoff between Chinese and Indian troops. Foreign Policy said that it 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 its story.
It 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 early May, China announced that the construction of a new village Gyalaphug had been completed in the southern part of Tibet Autonomous Region. There is only one problem with this; Gyalaphug is situated in Bhutan, not in China.
What China is doing within the territory of a sovereign state is unprecedented, and the name of the area, “Beyul,” immediately evokes a deep religious meaning. In Tibetan Buddhism, beyuls are hidden valleys that the “second Buddha” Padmasambhava designated in the 8th century CE as spiritual refuges.
Beyuls are where the spiritual and the material world touch each other.
They are also, Padmasambhava taught, where Buddhists will be able to retreat when the rest of the world will become too corrupt for their practice.
The exact number of beyuls designated by Padmasambhava is disputed, but Beyul Khenpajong, the area now occupied by the Chinese, is certainly one of them. By occupying another beyul, in addition to those in the so-called Tibet Autonomous Region, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) gives a powerful signal of its wish to keep Tibetan Buddhism under the Party’s control.
China and Bhutan do not maintain diplomatic relations, but there are periodical political talks, and wisely Bhutanese authorities have always tried to avoid a confrontational attitude towards their mammoth neighbour.
They may choose to look the other way even when China occupies 495 square kilometers of Bhutanese territory in the Beyul Khenpajong and Menchuma Valley area, although Foreign Policy commented that, “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.”
It has never been a Chinese area, and China’s claims are groundless. Reportedly, in the political talks China has said it is willing to give back the part of Beyul Khenpajong it has occupied to Bhutan in exchange for another 269 square kilometers of disputed areas ~ Doklam, Charithang, Sinchulungpa, Dramana, and Shakhatoe ~ in western Bhutan. Those areas are far away from Beyul Khenpajong, but close to the China-Bhutan-India border, and their control would offer to Beijing a decisive military advantage to threaten India.
Meanwhile, in China, hate campaigns against India do not subside. Bitter Winter reported about bad taste social media posts by official CCP institutions showing images of the cremation of India’s Covid-19 victims accompanied by comments on India’s supposed religion-based backwardness. While the posts were deleted, and criticised by many, Professor Shen Yi of Fudan University, who has become a social media hero in China for his ultra-nationalist comments, stated that the comparison of India’s “backward” funeral pyres and China’s “progressive” rocket launch was “very good,” adding that “the temper caused by the flirtatious whore that is India is also necessary.
As for the holierthan-thou bitches [referring to those who criticized the bad taste of the posts], if you want to express your feelings, please go to India and burn coffins.”
The situation on ChinaBhutan border remains in a stalemate but China is likely get Doklam heights from Bhutan through coercion in exchange for Gyalaphug being a Bhutanese religious place that will not be in the interest of India.
India has to strategise its future course of action by posing an aggressive posture in support of Bhutan, even if it is against its wishes.
The writer is retired Senior Professor of International Trade and a member of the Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi.