By Aditya Gowdara Shivamurthy
In October 2021, China passed a new “Land Borders Law”. The law intends to defend China’s territorial sovereignty and land borders with increased civil-military interactions and coordination. Although China has clarified that this law wouldn’t affect the existing border treaties and cooperation, it incorporates several provisions that could further intimidate small and less powerful neighbouring states like Nepal and Bhutan.
Primarily, the law attempts to set boundary markers on all its borders. It then urges the army and police to safeguard Chinese borders and authorises patrol officers to use police instruments and weapons against intruders. Secondly, the law calls the state to construct border towns and support them with connectivity, public services, civilian, and defence infrastructure, thus, making them more hospitable to settle in. It also urges civilians to defend the territories and assist the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) when needed.
On the surface, the law appears to safeguard and secure Chinese territories. But it becomes more avaricious when intertwined with the Chinese strategy of salami-slicing and settling its civilian population in the neighbours’ territories.
Settled yet unsettled borders of Nepal
Nepal and China officially demarcated their borders in 1961 by exchanging some territories on a give-and-take basis. In 1963, both the states further erected over 99 pillars to mark their boundaries. But, being erected in remote areas, they were hardly inspected or patrolled by the Nepali authorities. They were, thus, neglected to be damaged by weather or displaced by China.
Today, out of 15 Nepalese districts bordering China, over seven of them face land incursions from the latter. It includes the districts of Dolakha, Gorkha, Darchula, Humla, Sindhupalchowk, Sankhuwasa, and Rasuwa. China has also occupied Nepali villages in Darchula and Gorkha, with the Rui village being a recent example. In September 2020, China had even built 11 buildings in the remote borders of the Humla district. The pillars in this district were later found to be damaged or shifted by China.
These Chinese incursions aren’t a new problem for Nepal though. But Nepal’s pusillanimity to confront China because of its geopolitical compulsions and political instability has been a long prevalent problem. Thus, neither of the countries have held a joint boundary inspection since 2006, as the issue of pillar 57 surfaced. However, ignoring this Chinese aggression became a common phenomenon as the former Nepalese Prime Minister KP Oli moved closer to China by burning bridges with India.
With the new government, however, a study panel was initiated under the Ministry of Home Affairs. Its report confirmed China’s buildings and activities within Nepali borders. It also evaluated the Chinese obstructions and restrictions to the Nepali citizens’ day-to-day activities.
Although the Nepali government has recently raised this issue with the Chinese authorities, there has been much caution and delay in registering this complaint. And this is despite the prevalent permanent mechanism established by both countries.
The reason being that Nepal not only reaps economic benefits from China but also uses its proximity with the former to avoid over-dependence on India. The Chinese border law in this context poses a new challenge to Nepal. As Nepal attempts to pursue this delicate balance between the Asian giants, it will hesitate to question and scrutinise China, much to the latter’s advantage. China will, thus, use this opportunity to increase connectivity, settlements, village constructions, and salami-slicing tactics across its borders with Nepal. And much of the issue gets even more complicated to resolve once these Chinese villages and settlements are militarised and better connected.
Settlers, salami slicing, and the unsettled borders of Bhutan:
On the other hand, Bhutan lacks any permanent mechanism to solve its border issues with China. Bhutan enjoys a special relationship with India and has long been suspicious of China. It also has no diplomatic ties with its northern neighbour. However, since 1984, both the states have had 24 rounds of talks and 10 rounds of expert-level meetings to resolve their border disputes.
The disputed areas are as follows:
|Sl. No||Region||Contested areas/territories||Significance|
|1||Northern Bhutan||BeyulMenchuma Valley||Cultural and identity significance for Bhutan|
|2||Western Bhutan||DoklamDramana and ShakhatoeYak Chu and Charithang Chu valleysSinchulungpa and the Langmarpo valley||Closer to India’s strategic Siliguri Corridor/ “chicken’s neck”|
|3||Eastern Bhutan||Sakteng||The region has no borders with China and the dispute was raised only in 2020; closer to Tawang, India|
In 1996, China had offered to end the border disputes by asking Bhutan to retain its northern areas while giving up on its disputed western territories. However, Bhutan rejected the deal keeping Indian security concerns in mind. In 1998, Bhutan and China signed an agreement to maintain the status quo in the disputed areas while continuing the negotiations. Yet, they only finalised a three-step roadmap to solve the border issue in April 2021 and signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) in October 2021.
But despite these developments and guarantees, China has been using coercive and settlement strategies against Bhutan. Today, in the north, all of Menchuma valley and Beyul are being controlled and settled by China. This strategy of China’s goes back to 1995, when the former sent its first batch of Tibetan herders to settle in the unhabituated region of Beyul. These settlers prevented the Bhutanese herders from grazing their cattle and even confronted and harassed them. When the Bhutanese herders finally abandoned Beyul for the South, the Bhutanese soldiers ordered to defend the herders also withdrew from the region. Using the vacuum, China began resettling the Northern disputed regions. It announced its first village, Gyalaphug, in 2015. And by 2017, the village was supplemented with roads, buildings, and military outposts. A similar phenomenon recurred in Menchuma valley.
On the western side of the border, things haven’t been different either. In between 2006 to 2009, the western borders saw over 38 incursions from China. The former further entrenched its presence throughout the western borders after the Doklam standoff in 2017. In 2020, China had even built a well-connected and facilitated village called Pangda within Bhutan. And regardless of the recent MoU and its roadmap, four new Chinese villages are believed to have been constructed in western Bhutan between May 2020–November 2021.
China has thus been violating agreements and MoUs against Bhutan for its own territorial and strategic gains. It aims to establish diplomatic ties with Bhutan, settle the border dispute, and, most importantly, checkmate India in the Siliguri Corridor. Currently, the Bhutanese military faces severe infrastructure and material limitations to confront the Chinese intrusions, villages and settlements. But, much of this disparity will only increase with this new law, as China will exploit the law to make additional territorial gains through border villages and then supplement them with more militarisation and connection.
The Chinese land borders law has, thus, unravelled a new set of challenges for the Himalayan countries of Nepal and Bhutan. The law, which intends to defend the Chinese territorial integrity, appears to be another instrument of Chinese aggression and expansion. Located between India and China and compelled by their unique balance policies, these small states are vulnerable to China’s salami-slicing tactics and incursions. In addition, having possessed weak material capabilities and strategic infrastructure, both the countries will struggle to undo or deter additional Chinese settlements and villages and their increasing connectivity and militarisation.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s)