Just in time for its National Day in October, China completed construction of a new village high in the mountains where the Chinese region of Tibet meets the kingdom of Bhutan. A hundred people moved into two dozen new homes beside the Torsa River and celebrated the holiday by raising China’s flag and singing the national anthem.
“Each of us is a coordinate of the great motherland,” a border guard was quoted as saying by an official state news agency, China Tibetan News.
The problem is, these new “coordinates” are more than a mile inside what Bhutan considers its territory.
The construction, documented in satellite photos, followed a playbook China has used for years. It has brushed aside neighbours’ claims of sovereignty to cement its position in territorial disputes by unilaterally changing the facts on the ground.
It used the same tactics in the South China Sea, where it fortified and armed shoals claimed by Vietnam and the Philippines, despite promising the United States not to do so.
This year, China’s military built up forces in the Himalayas and crossed into territory that India claimed was on its side of the de facto border. That led to China’s bloodiest clash in decades, leaving at least 21 Indian soldiers dead, along with an unknown number of Chinese troops. The violence badly soured relations that had been steadily improving.
Even when challenged, China’s territorial grabs are difficult to reverse short of the use of force, as the Indian government has learned. Since the dispute at the border, Chinese troops have remained camped in areas that India once controlled.
“In the end, it reflects the consolidation of China’s control over the area it claims,” said M. Taylor Fravel, director of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an expert on China’s military.
Over the past year, China has moved aggressively against many of its neighbours, seemingly with little regard for diplomatic or geopolitical fallout. Its actions reflect the ambition of China’s leader, Xi Jinping, to assert the country’s territorial claims, economic interests and strategic needs around the world.