NEW DELHI – Emboldened by its cost-free expansion in the South China Sea, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s regime has stepped up efforts to replicate that model in the Himalayas. In particular, China is aggressively building many new villages in disputed borderlands to extend or consolidate its control over strategically important areas that India, Bhutan, and Nepal maintain fall within their national boundaries.

Underscoring the strategic implications of China’s drive to populate these desolate, uninhabited border areas is its major buildup of new military facilities there. The new installations range from electronic warfare stations and air defense sites to underground ammunition depots.

China’s militarized village-building spree has renewed the regional spotlight on Xi’s expansionist strategy at a time when, despite a recent disengagement in one area, tens of thousands of its troops remain locked in multiple standoffs with Indian forces. Recurrent skirmishing began last May after India discovered to its alarm that Chinese forces had stealthily occupied mountaintops and other strategic vantage points in its northernmost Ladakh borderlands.

China’s newly built border villages in the Himalayas are the equivalent of its artificially created islands in the South China Sea, whose geopolitical map Xi’s regime has redrawn without firing a shot. Xi’s regime advanced its South China Sea expansionism through asymmetrical or hybrid warfare, waged below the threshold of overt armed conflict. This approach blends conventional and irregular tactics with small incremental territorial encroachments (or “salami slicing”), psychological manipulation, disinformation, lawfare, and coercive diplomacy.

Now China is applying that playbook in the Himalayan borderlands. The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, citing a Chinese government document, recently reported that China intends to build 624 border villages in disputed Himalayan areas. In the name of “poverty alleviation,” the Communist Party of China is callously uprooting Tibetan nomads and forcing them to settle in artificial new border villages in isolated, high-altitude areas. The CPC has also sent ethnic Han Chinese party members to such villages to serve as resident overseers.

Creating a dispute where none previously existed is usually China’s first step toward asserting a territorial claim, before it furtively tries to seize the coveted area. Xi’s regime frequently uses civilian militias in the vanguard of such a strategy.

So, just as China has employed flotillas of coastguard-backed civilian fishing boats for expansionist forays in the South and East China Seas, it has been sending herders and grazers ahead of regular army troops into desolate Himalayan border areas to foment disputes and then assert control. Such an approach has enabled it to nibble away at Himalayan territories, one pasture at a time.

In international law, a territorial claim must be based on continuous and peaceful exercise of sovereignty over the territory concerned. Until now, China’s Himalayan claims have been anchored in a “might makes right” approach that seeks to extend its annexation of Tibet to neighboring countries’ borderlands. By building new border villages and relocating people there, China can now invoke international law in support of its claims. Effective control is the sine qua non of a strong territorial claim in international law. Armed patrols don’t prove effective control, but settlements do.

The speed and stealth with which China has been changing the facts on the ground in the Himalayas, with little regard for the geopolitical fallout, also reflects other considerations. Border villages, for example, will constrain the opposing military’s use of force while aiding Chinese intelligence gathering and cross-frontier operations.

Satellite images show how rapidly such villages have sprouted up, along with extensive new roads and military facilities. The Chinese government recently justified constructing a new village inside the sprawling Indian border state of Arunachal Pradesh by saying it “never recognized” Indian sovereignty over that region. And China’s territorial encroachments have not spared one of the world’s smallest countries, Bhutan, or even Nepal, which has a pro-China communist government.

China conceived its border-village program after Xi called on Tibetan herdsmen in 2017 to settle in frontier areas and “become guardians of Chinese territory.” Xi said in his appeal that, “without peace in the territory, there will be no peaceful lives for millions of families.” But Xi’s “poverty alleviation” program in Tibet, which has steadily gained momentum since 2019, has centered on cynically relocating the poor to neighboring countries’ territories.

The echoes of China’s maritime expansionism extend to the Himalayan environment. Xi’s island building in the South China Sea has “caused severe harm to the coral reef environment,” according to an international arbitral tribunal. Likewise, China’s construction of villages and military facilities in the borderlands threatens to wreak havoc on the ecologically fragile Himalayas, which are the source of Asia’s great rivers. Environmental damage is already apparent on the once-pristine Doklam Plateau, claimed by Bhutan, which China has transformed into a heavily militarized zone since seizing it in 2017.

Indian army chief Manoj Naravane recently claimed that China’s salami tactics “will not work.” Yet even an important military power like India is struggling to find effective ways to counter China’s territorial aggrandizement along one of the world’s most inhospitable and treacherous borders.

China’s bulletless aggression – based on using military-backed civilians to create new facts on the ground – makes defense challenging, because it must be countered without resorting to open combat. Although India has responded with heavy military deployments, Chinese forces remain in control of most of the areas they seized nearly a year ago. So far, China’s strategy is proving just as effective on land as it has been at sea.

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books  

© Project Syndicate 2021