A new set of satellite images have triggered fresh border anxieties between India and China. These images, accessed by VICE World News via American imaging company Planet Labs, are dated Nov. 1, 2020, and show a village made up of about 100 houses that are approximately 4.5 km within the Indian territory of its de facto border with China. Planet Labs also released a comparative image from August 2019, which doesn’t show any construction activity.
The region has been identified as the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which China has often claimed as its own. China calls it South Tibet. The village is located on the banks of River Tsari Chu, which is in Arunachal Pradesh’s Upper Subansiri district.
On Jan. 18, Indian news channel NDTV reported that while the new village is in Indian territory, official Indian government maps show that it’s been in Chinese control since 1959. The report observed that while only a Chinese military post existed earlier, now there’s a full-fledged village.
The Indo-Chinese border, most commonly known as the Line of Actual Control (LAC), has been seeing escalating tensions since May last year. The LAC is a conceptual attempt to separate the Indian and Chinese territory in the absence of an official border marked on a map. Both the countries disagree on the demarcations: India considers LAC to be 3,488 km long, while China considers it to be 2,000 km long.
In June 2020, violent clashes between the Indian and Chinese soldiers led to a casualty of over 20 Indian soldiers. The following months saw a series of deteriorating trust, border transgressions, posturing, and scuffles and firing. Experts even sounded the warning of an unintentional war.
Last month, reports of three border villages emerging very close to the LAC alarmed India—the latest in China’s attempts of a land-grabbing tactic called “salami-slicing”. It refers to asserting de facto control over territory in a gradual manner. “By quietly constructing new villages on the borders of India, Nepal and Bhutan, China is seeking to assert its territorial claims,” Brahma Chellaney, a professor of Strategic Studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, had previously told VICE World News.
On Monday, Jan. 18, an anonymous open-source intelligence analyst who goes by the Twitter handle @detresfa_ tweeted “ground images” of this village.
The same day, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) acknowledged the recent news reports of construction at the LAC. “We have seen recent reports on China undertaking construction work along the border areas with India,” the ministry said in a statement.
“China has undertaken such infrastructure construction activity in the past several years.” It further stated that the government is keeping a constant watch on these developments and will take “necessary measures to safeguard the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Border infrastructure on the Indian side of the LAC has been a major concern for many years. Several reports have emerged of a diminishing population at the border villages. July 2020 data suggested that at least 16 villages at the Indian side of the LAC are empty. Development on the Indian side of the border is ongoing, albeit slow and with multiple challenges, given the harsh terrain. In some of these border towns, there are no phone connections, electricity or roads.
The MEA, on Jan. 18, also stated that they have stepped up border infrastructure including construction of roads and bridges. “[It] has provided much-needed connectivity to the local population along the border,” the MEA statement said.
On the other hand, news reports show a robust border infrastructure on the Chinese side of the LAC, which Chinese President Xi Jinping has been promoting for several years. In November 2020, Chinese state-run tabloid Global Times addressed the border villages and described the amenities being built despite the tough terrain. It stated that the villages come packed with public squares, supermarkets, health rooms and so on.
“There are many places where Chinese border people have lived and grazed for a long time,” stated the report. “But more people are needed along the border to truly safeguard China's territorial sovereignty.”
In August 2020, Global Times published another report that documented Tibetan herders living close to China’s borders with India being given accommodations set up by Chinese authorities. “For residents who set up a home close to the borderline, herding is patrolling and living is guarding the frontier,” the report said. China watchers and human rights bodies, however, look at this as an exercise by China to tighten its hold over Tibet and surveil Tibetans.
On Jan. 18, Indian Member of Parliament P Chidambaram tweeted about the news report on the village. “If this is true, it is clear that the Chinese have altered the status quo by converting a disputed area into a permanent settlement of Chinese nationals,” he stated.
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