The Galwan valley clash between the Indian and Chinese forces last year was an inflexion point in the Sino-Indian relationship. India viewed China’s actions as breaching ‘peace and tranquillity’ and going against the spirit of the agreements signed between the two countries stipulating minimal troop level on the borders. The increased belligerence of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the failure of the two sides to reach a consensus on the boundary dispute following the clash has deteriorated bilateral relations further.
This opinion piece while putting emphasis on the aggressive Chinese frontier policy, will focus primarily on the construction of the moderately prosperous villages called Xiaokang in the disputed areas between the two Himalayan neighbours by the PRC and the consequences it has for India’s security. In the background of the border dispute, the recent reports of the PLA constructing a bridge on the Pangong Tso lake and the orders by the Chinese premier to “combine training with combat operations”, there is an urgent need for India to take account of the infrastructural developments in both the eastern and western sectors and to pace up its own security in the border regions.
‘Poverty alleviation’ villages
In October 2020, the Xinhua news agency hailed the Communist government of China for eliminating poverty completely, with the CCP Chief in Tibet- Wu Yinhjie, calling the relocation of people to ghetto-like new model villages a ‘major victory’. According to Wu, till 2020 a total of 900 villages were constructed with an estimated 200 near the Indian border. The construction of these Xiaokang villages, which according to the People’s daily “shine like pearls”, is an aspect of the CCP’s overall strategy of transforming China into a moderately prosperous society. Xinhua news media describes Xiaokang as a state in which imperfection persists but still, everyone is equally provided for. The term was reintroduced in the political discourse of China in the 1970s but the final push for its attainment was given in the last eight years. An intermediate stage in the path of modernisation, it involved rejuvenation in all aspects- economic, political, cultural, social and ecological in a coordinated fashion.
In the plan to make a moderately prosperous society, the Tibet Autonomous region (TAR) has been placed at the forefront of its strategy. Describing it as a vanguard of the national security barrier and as a region in urgent need of development and nourishment, China has accrued a dual purpose to these villages. The government of the TAR in 2017 launched a plan to build 628 villages in 21 counties, stretching from the Ngari, Shigatse, Shinnan and Nyingchi prefectures. The state allocated 30.1 billion yuan ( approx. 30000 crore rupees) for their construction and for building critical infrastructures like water, electricity, road, communication, network, etc. The location of these villages along the contested territories between India and China sheds light on the PRC’s real motives behind their positioning. Aiming to gain a leverage in its border disputes with its neighbours, the villages should be viewed together with the development of bridges and railway lines in the same regions and their potential in increasing China’s ability to reach Arunachal Pradesh. According to Claude Arpi, an expert on China, the villages are also aimed at changing the demographic identity of the region, with plans to enforce ethnic inter-mingling as a means to exercise control over the masses in the borders. They are also seen as targeting the border population of India and luring them towards a better life in Chinese villages, apart from keeping an eye on any incursions. As every village will have a party official, there are concerns about these officials being able to do political work in areas across the border because of the similarity of culture. According to save Tibet, which is an international advocacy group working for the freedom of Tibetans, the villages are also intended to act as a security barrier between Tibet and the rest of the world having been constructed mostly on the routes used by the Tibetans to cross over to India and Nepal.
Why should India be concerned?
In January 2021, NDTV released a report showing a Chinese village with approximately 100 houses on the banks of the Tsari Chu river in the Long ju area of Arunachal Pradesh. According to the report, the village is approximately 4.5 km inside Indian territory. Even though the region is shown as a part of India in the official maps of the Surveyor General of India, it has been in effective Chinese control for the last six decades. The Ministry of External Affairs, while not categorically denying the presence of the said village, stated that it rejects China’s unjustified claims and illegal occupation in the region. But General Bipin Rawat- India’s Chief of Defence Staff at the time- refuted the presence of any village inside India’s perception of the LAC, adding that the villages on the Chinese side are for ‘billeting and locating’ their civilians, and probably their military in the future. Denying that the construction of these villages was a part of Chinese flexing their strength against India, the CDS argued how India should also focus on increasing connectivity to the border areas. The report was also rejected by the Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh, Pema Khandu.
Another report indicated the presence of a second village, 93 km away from the first one in the Shi-Yomi district of Arunachal Pradesh with satellite images showing a Chinese flag painted from the rooftop of one of the houses. This was also subsequently denied by the Indian army. The issue came to light again in November 2021, when the US Department of Defence passed a reference to these villages in its Annual report on military developments involving China. It’s statement that the Indian Army was aware of the presence of these villages since at least the past year led to emphatic debates about China’s intransigence and the overall condition on the border, especially in the eastern sector. The Chinese state media labelled the state’s actions as ‘beyond reproach’ as it didn’t recognise Arunachal Pradesh as a part of India and hence was well within its powers to undertake such a project.
The five fingers of the Tibetan palm, a strategy espoused by Mao and used by the officials in the 1950s considers Xizang (Tibet) as the right palm of the Chinese state, responsible for liberating the fingers- Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and the North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA), present-day Arunachal Pradesh. With Nepal and Bhutan independent countries and Sikkim, Ladakh and NEFA inalienable part of India, it becomes important for us to view the construction of these villages as a manifestation of this strategy. The recent clash at Galwan valley in the west, the clash at Naku La in Sikkim and the construction of a village 2.5 km inside Bhutanese territory are some points of concern. Along the Indian border, the villages are spread from the Rutok prefecture in the west to Rima in the Lohit valley in the east. There are also a few villages on the Chinese side of the LAC in Ladakh and the Tsona area.
What can India do to counter Chinese aggression- Making the eastern sector a priority
Kibithu in Anjaw district is in the easternmost administrative circle in India. Housing dozens of villages within the 10 km range of the McMohan line, the villagers are fluent in Hindi because of their regular interaction with the security forces but do not have proper connectivity with the mainland. Having been subjected to a significant military deployment since independence, they are accustomed to a military presence. But depopulation is a case of concern in the border villages in all areas of India. After trade with Tibet stopped post the 1962 Indo-China war, many frontier villages dependent on trade were deserted with people moving to the plains for better economic and professional opportunities. This is also visible in the west where close to 3000 ‘ghost’ villages exist in Uttarakhand.
After the 1962 war, the Nehru administration decided against undertaking border development fearing an increased advantage for China in case it decided to intrude. But in the current situation, with India caught in an unfavourable neighbourhood, there is an urgent need for it to focus on strengthening its frontier regions- not just building critical military infrastructure but also working towards better integrating the populations with the mainland, taking a more development centred approach rather than directing all its actions to contain China. The ‘difference’ in the infrastructure development between the two countries was also exhorted by the External Affairs Minister at the beginning of this year. The Border Area Development Programme, which began in 1980 for the western border now covers 390 blocks of 111 border districts in 16 states and Union Territories. In the 2020-21 fiscal year, ₹784 crores were allocated to border states and UTs based on the length of the border and population, a fall from the ₹825 crores allocated in the previous fiscal with emphasis on building villages and towns while also allocating resources on building roads, bridges, culverts, schools and health infrastructure. Mechanisms to undertake social audits and create a positive perception amongst the people are also being adopted. According to some sources the government is now focusing on equipping the forces stationed in the border areas with sufficient knowledge of the Chinese language as well as culture to train them better. The eastern sector involves questions of territory as well as allegiance, with a diverse cultural composition and the distinct nature of the tribes making it more important than the cartographic importance of the West.
Efforts to stem migration from the frontier and enhanced funding have also been taken regularly but the Government’s focus should be on creating adequate facilities- both economic and welfare so that the people can earn their livelihood. Steps should be taken to enhance wool production, carpet weaving, and other industries that are more viable in the region along with increasing inter-village trading. The government can also consider the prospect of resuscitating the defunct Indian Frontier Administrative Service, calls for which have been made in different quarters. A central tool in shaping India’s border policy during the 1950s, it was based on an understanding and connection with the local people, with its focus on the development of the region. The emphasis should be on mainstreaming local voices.
Following a salami-slicing technique, China is trying to accrue incremental gains in its boundary disputes with India as well as Bhutan to place itself in a more advantageous position in their resolution. The step towards inhabiting the villages is aimed at establishing sovereignty through the presence of civilians in a territory. The Chinese state-run Global Times deemed India’s reaction as exaggerated and a consequence of its hypersensitive nature. Testimonies of locals marvelling at their better lifestyle in these villages are also frequently made to legitimise the state’s actions. Citing the dismal conditions of these border regions in India and the reported dissent from the locals, India is blamed for targeting China to deflect attention from its domestic shortcomings.
The rhetoric of the Xi Jinping led government has only increased in tempo in the past few months, with actions on the ground, like the construction of civilian villages and the promulgation of a new ‘Land borders law’ to legitimise the military’s actions in the eastern sector simultaneously accompanied by symbolic acts like the renaming of 15 places in Arunachal Pradesh. The attempts by China to change the facts on ground should be of great concern to India. With the talks on the border dispute not seeing any positive development, it is imperative for New Delhi to scale its infrastructure in the border areas, especially in the east while taking along the needs of the local population.
Shivam Shekhawat is a recent graduate from the London School of Economics and Political Science where she was a Commonwealth Scholar. She is interested in studying about India’s neighbourhood, particularly India’s relationship with China and its response to the situation in Afghanistan and Myanmar. Her interests also lie in analyzing contemporary conflicts through a historical lens and the factors which affect a country’s response to humanitarian crises.