In November, Chinese media revealed shocking images of a new village built inside an area that has been disputed by China and Bhutan for decades. All this despite recent statements by Lotay Tsering, the prime minister of Bhutan, saying that negotiations over the Bhutan-China border had been progressing well. The Chinese village, Pangda, had been built in a short period and already had residents living in it by the time Bhutan discovered it.
A tweet of satellite photos revealed the village, which appeared to be an accident, as the author quickly deleted the tweet later. Social media often trumpets Chinese successes, and this had the appearance of another simple case of questionable news until the Chinese government censored it. Only then did experts realize the extent of the satellite imagery. If it were an average post about the Chinese Communist Party’s work to eliminate poverty in China, it would not have faced censorship shortly after publication.
Perhaps the almost immediate censorship the tweet about Pangda received is due to border tensions with India over Chinese villages in disputed territories. China watchers see these aggressive actions from China as a forceful way to redraw borders. The borders between the Union Territory of Ladakh and China were never officially discussed between India and China. Because of this, and similar tensions in other parts of India, China-India tensions are at their highest point in decades.
The China-India border neighbors the Bhutan-China border, and this naturally creates battle lines between the countries that see China as intruding and China itself. India, for its part, has not been a passive observer in the dispute. India’s road-building in the disputed territory has led to it becoming a hotspot for military activity. The two nations with the largest populations in the world have engaged in a military standoff for months.
This military standoff is a dangerous situation because as China-India tensions flare, the chance of an unintentional war increases. India and China cannot agree on where their borders are, and both countries have arsenals with nuclear weapons. The Indian Army faced higher casualties in the most recent border skirmish. India and China can only expect more intense and bloodier battles over Ladakh if the two countries cannot reach a diplomatic solution.
Repeated India-China battles over Ladakh and other areas have been the pattern of a multi-decade border dispute. 20 Indian soldiers died in the last clash with the People’s Liberation Army. The Indian Army, in its first report, said that only three had been killed and added that there had been casualties on both sides. India’s foreign policy arm has accused China of violating previous agreements on the Line of Actual Control.
India and China do not see these actions as equally severe, and this disconnect contributes to further tension on the border. Indian soldiers are now guarding the highway that the military built in the disputed area. India-China relations are increasingly worsening, and a new flare-up could have devastating consequences. Earlier in the year, a spokesman for the Indian military issued a statement condemning “provocative military movements” by the Chinese in contested parts of Ladakh.
China may soon face similar condemnation from Bhutan, as it has from India, due to its village-building in the Sakteng wildlife park. China and India’s border problems have only extended into Bhutan, a small country the size of an Indian border state. India is close to Bhutan, and the two have an alliance, but Bhutan may not have expected the same level of confrontation with China that India has experienced.
The India-Bhutan border has been largely peaceful throughout time, and now the two countries must work together to deal with Chinese advances. India and Bhutan’s main conflicts have been over conservation. The countries have jointly run counter-insurgency operations in wildlife preserves. The Indian government has made statements defending not only their perceived borders but also those of Bhutan.
China-India confrontations have become increasingly heated, and Bhutan, as a small neighbor to both China and India, might worry with other countries that the conflict might escalate into a nuclear one. The border clashes involving China and India could redefine the status quo of Asian relations. China and India have had more discussions about each other’s nuclear arsenals, though China’s focus remains on the United States as the main nuclear rival.
China-India relations and the prospect of nuclear conflict have put the United States on alert, despite both China’s and India’s repeated assertions that the situation will work out and is under control. China-India relations are at their lowest point in decades because of this past summer’s violent border disputes. China and India’s previously more controlled competitive but controlled relationship will now have more focused and ongoing attention because of this.
The China-India crisis can provide some valuable lessons, and it also provides a valuable opportunity for the United States to strengthen its relationship with India. Chinese and Indian soldiers attacked each other to an extent not seen in decades. The Indian government tried to keep the story from being reported unfavorably. The Galwan River Valley casualties – though tragic for the families of the dead – once their true amount was revealed, may have given India a gift in drawing the attention of the United States.
India and China’s ongoing border clashes attract much more attention and sympathy than Bhutan’s given the limited size and influence of that country. Anti-China sentiment in India is rising, just as it is in the United States. The Chinese and Indian militaries will only use these dramatic nationalist emotional responses to fuel the increased rivalry. The internet has been flooded with fake videos and pictures of individual incidents, examples of these passionate responses by both Chinese and Indians. The United States will continue to build its relationship with India and advise its military, which can potentially temper some of the emotion and rashness of the moment. This course of action will benefit India and especially, Bhutan.