NEW CHINESE BORDER VILLAGES: AN OSINT ANALYSIS

anil chopra, Shiv Sastry, air power asia, China, Villages, Border, North East, Arunachal

For a few years now, new villages built by the Chinese government at the border with neighboring countries, or just across the border, or in territory that China disputes have been sighted and reported with increasing frequency. Many of these villages can be seen in satellite images available from Google Earth or other similar open-source GIS platforms.

This is an analysis of some of the villages, their possible purpose, and what might be their ultimate fate or use case.

There is one common feature between the new villages and the attitude that the Chinese have displayed all across the border or L.A.C. The Chinese do not believe in maintaining a gap of neutral “no man’s land” between forces at any designated border. They have shown a tendency to step right up to the border or demarcating line and register their presence either with a pucca road ending, or a building with a wall or trenches that serve as military border defences. Even where there is no building, the road end is always suitable for vehicular patrolling as observable in many areas where the blind end of a road at the border ends in a “loop” allowing a vehicle to circle back.

Figure 1.

Former foreign secretary and NSA Shivshankar Menon noted in his book that face-offs between Chinese and Indian forces became more common after India started improving her own border infrastructure and increased patrolling up to the Line of Actual Control. This is possibly an accurate observation because village building has also been reported with increasing frequency within the last five years or so.

But why would the Chinese build villages rather than post detachments of their own huge armed forces in the area? The explanation that has appeared in some media is that by building a village, the Chinese can claim that the area is a “settled area” and cannot be disputed. This explanation is unconvincing. After all, Arunachal Pradesh is a settled state but the Chinese dispute it. Mere settlement of people cannot remove an area from being disputed. In the same manner, settled villages built by the Chinese can and will be disputed. With the “settled area” explanation being an unlikely one, we can look at other possible explanations as to why the Chinese would build ostensibly civilian villages rather than formal military outposts as they have done in the past.

One possibility is that the Chinese, despite their huge military budget and large army find it difficult to maintain outposts in the hostile, high altitude terrain between Chinese occupied Tibet, on the one hand, India, Nepal, and Bhutan on the other. The PLA (People’s Liberation Army) of China consists largely of conscripts who do a two-year stint in the army. There are many reports that the Chinese have had trouble maintaining troops in Tibet. In Ladakh, for instance, early, boastful reports from China spoke of oxygen-enriched barracks for their border troops. Apparently, these did not work as expected. Later reports have spoken of a low oxygen training area to try and get troops acclimatized before posting them out. But medical literature on high altitude acclimatization does not support this idea as an effective one, apart from the fact that these facilities may have to cater for tens of thousands of troops in case of conflict, and not just a limited number of border guards. More recent reports have stated that the PLA is recruiting Tibetan locals who are genetically capable of living in hostile, high-altitude areas. As a general rule, one can surmise that when multiple solutions are applied to the same problem, it is likely that none of them has actually solved the problem.

This is where the construction of villages could be a possible solution for China’s drive to occupy every millimeter of the border, habitable or uninhabitable. It has been reported that local Tibetan villagers have been offered a salary of 9000 Yuan a month to live in newly built village and an additional stipend is paid. Clearly, this indicates a manpower issue, not a financial one.

Before I move on to an analysis of the sites and purposes of selected villages let us first consider what a village is. Let me start with a banal truism: villages have existed long before national borders came into being. This fact has an important implication on why and where villages exist. Traditionally villages have always come up near a water source where people can settle, and additionally, have nearby sources of food or other economic means of long-term survival. This could mean arable land, or forest for hunting, areas for grazing of domestic animals, or natural resources such as minerals that can be sold or bartered for other essential commodities from nearby settlements. In other words, it is the economic activity to support life that villages need in order to survive. These requirements dictate the presence or absence of a village in any given geographical area. Modern villages can come up around urban areas too, but here too they serve and meet an economic need based on some industry or nearby source of employment or income. 

Figure 2 is an image of an old riverside village in Chinese occupied Tibet close to Arunachal Pradesh. Clearly, there are open spaces for agriculture and grazing and what appear to be multiple glasshouses for cold climate farming. The economic aspect of village life is unmistakable.

Figure 2

With this in mind, we can now look at some villages built by the Chinese near the border or within the territory of neighboring countries.

NEW VILLAGE IN BHUTAN

Figure 3 is an image of a village built in the Amo Chu river valley inside Bhutan, close to the Doklam plateau.  A flat ovoid area of land has been reclaimed in the river valley by scraping the mountainside and cutting down the trees. A neat collection of a couple of dozen brand-new homes have been built. There is no space for agriculture or any other economic activity. If there are children – there is no space for a college or higher education anywhere nearby for hundreds of kilometers. There is no protection against flash floods. Every item or food, clothing, medicines, and other goods has to come down a narrow mountain road that could get blocked by an avalanche or floods. This is an artificial monster village where people are paid to go and live to give the appearance of a village. Life for a permanent resident of this village can only be miserable and it is most likely that the main occupants of this village will be temporary residents consisting of soldiers of the PLA.

Figure 3

However, if this village building is not stopped the Chinese will build something further downstream and grab more land. In fact, satellite images actually reveal cut tree trunks, deforestation, and excavation further down from this site (Figure 4). A defenceless Bhutan can do nothing about the dragon’s incursions in this area unless the Bhutanese government emerges from denial and actively seeks Indian help.

Figure 4

NEW CHINESE VILLAGE NEAR L.A.C. IN ARUNACHAL PRADESH

Figure 5 shows the Chinese-built village that was allegedly inside Arunachal Pradesh as per some media reports. The village lies upriver on a tributary called the Lensi river that joins the Subansri river further downstream. However, fact-checkers have shown that the Chinese have had this area under occupation from 1959 and there is even an old Chinese military post beyond this new-build village. Once again we see here a narrow strip of reclaimed land along the junction of two streams created by deforestation and excavation. The village is situated in a narrow gorge 200 km from the nearest big town of Lhunze.

With a well-developed Chinese military site just beyond this village, one can be certain that this is no genuine village, but accommodation for the PLA or other visitors that the PLA arranges for its cadres. The Chinese are said to be enticing local people to join the PLA and to live in these remote villages that have no facilities other than what they receive from up the road from hundreds of kilometers away. Luxury accommodation and handsome salaries may be sweeteners to keep such a village ostensibly occupied. Among all territories under the control of the Chinese communist party, Tibet is the only one with a negative economic return, that is China puts more money and resources into Tibet than it earns from the Tibetan economy. These border villages are clearly another one-way resource suckers because they have no intrinsic economic value but are there merely for visibly marking Chinese presence with a facade of civilian village life.  Knowing the draconian rule that the Chinese impose on subject people, India must anticipate that these villages may be used to send civilians to wander “innocently” into Indian territory. This area is remote and otherwise sparsely inhabited and needs to be watched closely, and any intrusions evicted with prompt, strong action.

Figure 5

NEW CHINESE VILLAGE IN NYINGCHI COUNTY

In mid-November 2021 it was reported that a New Chinese village called Quilong was built inside Arunachal Pradesh. It was also reported that the Indian Army had been asked about this and the latter had replied that the coordinates of this new village were on the Chinese side of the L.A.C. It was reported in the mainstream media that the new village was shown as being inside India’s perception of the L.A.C. as per a standard Indian reference map.

A detailed examination of the geography of the area using Google Earth and superimposing the image shown in an NDTV report shows that the latter image depicts a very vague, ill-defined L.A.C. that does not correspond to any existing geographical features but is just a squiggly line on a map. I have marked this line in yellow (See Figure 6) The yellow line reaches up to the Chinese Linzhi airport that is across the L.A.C. The red line is shown as the L.A.C. on Google earth actually follows the ridgelines and watershed line perfectly, keeping rivers flowing north towards Tibet and rivers flowing south towards Arunachal Pradesh. In fact, the red Google Earth line accurately represents the actual control line or L.A.C., because the Chinese have a large presence north of the red line and Indian forces and villages, including Tuting airfield are clearly visible to the south of the red line. The map shown in the image does not reflect the ground reality of the L.A.C.

Figure 6

NEW CHINESE VILLAGE  EAST OF BUM LA

The image below (Figure 7) is of a new village in a valley just 15 km east of the Chinese border post at Bum La. With trenches and other military-style defences, this “village” does not even appear like a village but has a grim military appearance to it. In fact, there are several other clearings on the approach road to this valley where there seem to be villages under construction from 2018 images on Google Earth.  This appears to be a determined Chinese effort to put a permanent human and military presence in remote and previously uninhabited border areas.

Figure 7

NEW CHINESE VILLAGE ACROSS THE L.A.C. AT THE SIANG RIVER

Figure 8 shows an area across the L.A.C. from the Siang river in satellite images from 2019 and 2021. The area is less than 2 km from the L.A.C. The 2019 image shows a pristine river and forest. In 2021 there is evidence of forest clearing and excavation to build a village. The water in the river has also turned muddy. This was noticed by Indian residents downriver in Arunachal Pradesh.

Figure 8

ANALYSIS AND CONCLUSIONS

Chinese border management vis-a-vis India has gradually evolved over the decades. To their credit, the Chinese, their strategic minds uncluttered by pacifist blather, and with a hard-nosed focus on the reality of territorial management, set out building good motor-able roads to connect every nook and cranny of the areas they sat on, legally or illegally. From historic satellite images, it is clear that the Chinese very often built roads accurately up to what they perceived as a border and stopped there – sometimes with a blind-ending to a road with a loop for vehicles to reverse as shown in Figure 1. It appears that a lot of their border monitoring was done in motor vehicles in the past, rather than foot patrols. Surveillance cameras and drones are, after all, relatively recent developments. The Chinese did not need to build villages to mark their control over all areas. Roads and patrolling were probably considered sufficient. However, wherever the Chinese needed to show ownership of land, they built concrete shelters and surrounded them with defensive walls and trenches. This was the old, traditional way, and can be observed in many historic satellite images. In all cases, these points can be identified by roads that lead to them showing the Chinese method of open, blatant, in-your-face marking of territorial control using roads and concrete structures. Apparently, this was sufficient for the Chinese as they could monitor uninhabited areas at will and take down any perceived encroachments without having a permanent border presence.

It is certain that the Chinese were greatly aided by a lackadaisical Indian border management policy inherited from the Nehru era that discouraged infrastructure building the border areas in the hope that hostile terrain would keep the Chinese away. Clearly, this policy failed as the Chinese have been able to encroach on unmarked and unoccupied territory when unchallenged. It is shocking to learn that the Indian army in the past had to march for weeks to reach some border posts, and many were, and still are, unreachable in winter.

However Indian policy with regard to border management has thankfully lifted itself out of the coma and there has been some intense and unprecedented building of roads and the setting up of new border surveillance areas. It probably is correct to surmise that Chinese forces are now encountering an Indian presence in areas where their presence was previously undetected and their dominance complete. The construction of new Chinese villages all across the border and L.A.C. areas appears to be a reaction to a changed and alert Indian border surveillance policy. In the last two years, the Chinese have been building border villages furiously. With the media hue and cry about one or two villages that are alleged to have been built within Indian-controlled territory, it is easy to forget that the Chinese have apparently decided to build hundreds of border villages and force the migration of several lakh people into these new villages.

Only time will tell if this new Chinese implementation of an old policy of forced migration and resettlement will actually benefit the Chinese. In many areas where the Chinese are building new villages, there are already settled populations on the Indian side. The Chinese are now trying to put in populations on their side in areas that were unpopulated in the past. In doing so they are ravaging the environment with deforestation and excavation of mountainsides. In some areas where the new villages are being built, there are high mountains separating the new villages from India, but in other areas, there are river valleys that could be used for encroachment and infiltration by the Chinese.

It is possible that the Chinese intend to make these far-flung, dead-end border villages into tourist destinations.  That would be the only realistic way of generating revenue from these new villages, given their limited scope for expansion and remoteness. With such tourism, India will have to anticipate that mountaineers and trekkers will cross from the border villages into the Indian side. It is well known that the town of Nyingchi itself was planned as a tourist hub with its relatively low altitude, and the Chinese have built an airport just 15 km from the LAC with India. The airport itself does not appear to have a major military function. The new village of Quilong is less than 20 km from Linzhi airport. Elsewhere, the Chinese are building another high-altitude airport near Lhunze, close to Bum La and the Subansri river. Many of the new Chinese villages in the area are in the pristine territory and could be served by this new airport.

India on the other hand has tended to maintain the undisturbed forest environment near the borders. But this may have to change. With the Chinese expanding relentlessly, India will necessarily have to cut roads into the pristine border areas and open them up for the security forces, or for adventure tourism. The latter idea has been mooted by some authorities and seems to be an excellent way of spurring border development while simultaneously stamping the mark of ownership on the remote border areas of India.

Author: Dr. Shiv Sastry. The Author is a retired surgeon with a long-term interest in military aviation. The views expressed are the author’s own.

Header Image Source: northeastlivetv.com

Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

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