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Here’s Another Outlandish Territorial Claim By China, And Beijing’s Justification For It

Author: Jaideep Mazumdar
Publication: Swarajyamag.com
Date: July 3, 2020
URL:   https://swarajyamag.com/world/heres-another-outlandish-territorial-claim-by-china-and-beijings-justification-for-it

Snapshot

China is claiming territory in eastern Bhutan as its own.

What's more, it is predicating this claim on its claim over Arunachal Pradesh.

Early last month, China sprang a nasty surprise at what was to have been a routine meeting of the Global Environment Facility (GEF), an international agency funded by UN bodies like the FAO, UNDP and UNEP.

At the virtual meeting held over two days (June 2 and 3) to approve funding for various environmental projects around the world, Bhutan put in a request for funds for its Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary (SWS) in eastern Bhutan.

The Chinese representative at the GEF council immediately raised an objection on the grounds that SWS fell in an area that is claimed by China. Bhutan was stunned, since China had never laid claim to that part of Bhutan which does not even border Chinese-occupied Tibet (CoT).

The SWS, in fact, has Arunachal Pradesh’s West Kameng district to its east and Twang district to its north. The SWS falls in Bhutan’s Trashigang province, which also does not share a border with CoT.

According to this report in StratNews Global, the Chinese contention was immediately rebutted by the GEF Secretariat, which firmly told the Chinese representative that the SWS falls within the sovereign territory of Bhutan.

The StratNews Global report adds that during the adoption of the final US $ 700 million global work programme, the Chinese delegate insisted that a footnote be added to the minutes of the meeting recording China’s objection to the GEF grant to SWS. The Chinese delegate said the footnote should mention that China’s objection is based on the project falling in the “disputed area between China and Bhutan”.

Though China did not have its way and its objection did not figure in the GEF Chair’s summary, both Bhutan and India are alarmed since China has now made a fresh claim over Bhutan’s territory.

Till 2017, China had laid its claim over only two areas in north Bhutan bordering CoT--Pasamlung and Jakarlung. In 2017, it laid claim to Doklam which is near the tri-junction of India, Bhutan and CoT.

Beijing’s Bizarre Rationale

But while all those three areas--Pasamlung, Jakarlung and Doklam--are in Bhutan’s border with CoT, the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary is far away from Bhutan’s border with CoT.

So why has China laid this fresh and surprising claim to a territory that falls well within Bhutan and only borders India?

China’s ludicrous logic, top officials in Bhutan who have learnt of it only now told Swarajya from Thimphu, is based on its claim over Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh.

China, unbelievable as it may sound, bases its claim over Sakteng on local folklore of the Monpa people (natives of Tawang and West Kameng)! Beijing says Tawang was part of Tibet and the Monpas are a Tibetan tribe. The Monpas, of course, vehemently deny this Chinese claim and say that while they may have paid taxes to Tibetan warlords intermittently in the past and are Buddhists, they were never ruled over by Tibet.

Tsangyang Gyatso, a Monpa, was the 6th Dalai Lama in the 17th century. Beijing also cites this to buttress its contention that the Monpas are Tibetans and, hence, the areas they are native to (Tawang and West Kameng) were integral parts of Tibet.

Arunachal Pradesh chief minister Pema Khandu, a Monpa himself, says that the Chinese claim over Tawang and West Kameng based on the 6th Dalai Lama being a Monpa is totally flawed.

“Our scriptures mentioning the search for the 6th Dalai Lama after the demise of the 5th Dalai Lama clearly say that the search party comprising senior monks were told to look outside Tibet. The monks were told they would find the reincarnation of the 5th Dalai Lama in a valley outside Tibet whose name ended with ‘ling’. Tsangyang Gyatso was found in Ugyenling valley in Tawang,” Khandu told this writer a few years ago.

Coming to the Chinese claim over Sakteng, Beijing refers to some old accounts of Monpas traveling through the forests of Sakteng to reach Bodoland areas of present-day Assam. “The Chinese are now saying that Sakteng was part of Tibet since the Monpas (who China claims are Tibetans) used to travel through Sakteng,” a senior official from Thimphu told Swarajya.

The Monpas themselves have no accounts of their forefathers ever traveling through Sakteng to reach Assam. “In all probability, that is fiction. The traditional trade route was from Tibet through Tawang and Bomdila (headquarters of West Kameng district) to what is Tezpur today (in Assam). That was also one of the ‘silk routes’ that traders used to take. There are no accounts of Monpas or the Tibetans traveling through what is known as Sakteng forest today,” said Sangey Norbu, a well-known chronicler at Tawang.

Norbu adds that Sakteng is, and was, dense forest and it is impossible for Monpas to have travelled through dense forests centuries ago. “The route from Bumla (on Tawang’s border with CoT) through Tawang and Bomdila to Tezpur is centuries old, well traveled and passes through settlements that have existed for centuries. Why would the Monpas have taken a much tougher route through thick forests? That is ludicrous,” he says.

Educationist and historian Yeshi Gyesen who has extensively studied old texts and chronicles kept at the Tawang monastery and other archives, said that this Chinese claim is “fictitious”. “It is as bogus as China’s contention that Monpas are Tibetans,” he told Swarajya from Tawang.

Norbu, Gyesen and Tibetan officials say in all likelihood, China has “manufactured” false records to support their claim about Sakteng being part of Monpa territory. The Chinese, they point out, are quite proficient in falsifying history in support of their expansionism.

The Long-Term Implication Of China’s Claim

China’s latest claim over Sakteng in Bhutan is by no means a stray one. China has a larger and very long-term strategic goal here, say experts.

China is an expansionist power and employs dubious means to further its claims on territories belonging to its neighbours. Those means include even falsifying history and records to suit its expansionist designs.

Once they manage to establish, by making repeated claims over it, that Sakteng is disputed territory and include it in the agenda of border talks with Bhutan, Beijing will come up with a fresh claim that Trashiyangtse province of Bhutan to Sakteng’s north also belongs to it (see this map).

According to Beijing’s expansionist thinking, there is no harm making such fantastical claims. Nothing will be lost if those claims are never realised, but it will serve the purpose of keeping Bhutan in a state of agitation and insecurity.

After all, a much more powerful neighbour and a totalitarian state with a history of brutal repression laying claim to a small and weaker country’s territory is not something that will rest lightly on the latter (Bhutan).

And if, by some good fortune at a later date, China is able to establish control over Trashiyangtse and Trashigang provinces of Bhutan, it can easily bulldoze its way through Samdrup Jongkhar province (to Trashigang’s south and bordering Assam) to reach Assam’s north bank directly opposite Guwahati. That will be a huge tactical and strategic gain for China.

As it is, China claims most of Arunachal Pradesh, which it calls ‘south Tibet’. Apart from the 6th Dalai Lama being a Monpa, Beijing also bases this claim on fictitious records it has manufactured in recent decades of many tribes of that northeastern state having paid tribute to Lhasa and having been administered by Tibetans. Arunachal’s tribes reject those false claims, but that makes no difference to China and serves as no deterrence to its expansionist designs.

China’s fresh claim over Sakteng has come as a bolt from the blue for Tibetans. Tibet has strongly objected to China’s territorial adventurism, and public opinion in the Himalayan kingdom is turning against Beijing.

After antagonising India, Japan, Vietnam, Philippines and some other countries by laying claims to their territories, China has added Bhutan to this list. But its not a mindless addition, say experts. Beijing’s motive is sinister and diabolical.

 

 
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