Harsh V Pant
India is pulling out all the stops to reach out to the “first citizens” who reside in hamlets along the India-China border. Under the Vibrant Villages Programme (VVP), nearly 3,000 villages selected along the 3,400-km-long border are set to get better infrastructure facilities, and ₹2,500 crore has been set aside to construct roads.
In Arunachal Pradesh, hydel power projects are in the works and facilities of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police personnel are in for an upgrade. In addition, telecom companies have been asked to improve mobile connectivity in Tawang district, which was the site of clashes between India and China in 2022. This mega infrastructure revamp comes close on the heels of China renaming areas in Arunachal, which it claims is a part of Tibet. The idea is to improve the quality of life in these areas and prevent migration to cities, thereby enhancing India’s border security.
Expanding territorial claims through building infrastructure and civilian-military fusion are key elements of China’s expansionism in the sea and on land. This year, China announced that construction would commence on a new railway line linking Xinjiang and Tibet, that will run close to the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and cut through the Aksai Chin region, which India claims and is in Chinese occupation. Similarly, under a transport plan unveiled in 2021, Beijing announced an expressway and a super-fast railway route linking the mainland with Taiwan. These are instances of China showcasing its intent to change the status quo.
Since China began modernising the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), there has been an increase in its expansion as evidenced from the reclamation of reefs and islands in the South China Sea. This has followed by construction of military facilities and other infrastructure. Under the pretext of protecting Chinese civilian fishing vessels, the People’s Republic managed to gain effective control of Scarborough Shoal, which had been claimed by the Philippines.
One of the lessons that China drew from the Soviet Union’s collapse was that it had to secure the periphery to protect the hinterland. More than 70 years after China occupied Tibet, it has still not been able to completely erase the spiritual influence of the Dalai Lama, and cultural ties between Tibet and India are a source of worry for China. Chinese President Xi Jinping has underscored the need to secure the Tibetan borderland, following which emerged reports that villages were being constructed along the border in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and a loyal population was being settled there.
Subsequently, the Chinese state media began to increasingly refer to the area as Xizang Autonomous Region, which showed the regime’s increasing zeal to ‘sinicise’ the local population. In 2022, the Land Border Law came into force in China that stipulated that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Chinese People’s Armed Police Force were tasked with the responsibility of maintaining security along the border.
The legislation conceived that the people of the People’s Republic were key to border security, stating that citizens were duty bound to protect and defend border infrastructure. It also emphasized the need to resettle population and upgrade critical infrastructure along the border. The law also highlighted the need for political education to consolidate a sense of community and allegiance to the Chinese nation.
Recently, it emerged that the PLA was promoting military education among inhabitants in places like Nyingchi, which is close to the India-China border near Arunachal. In this endeavour there is a strong strand of strategy that binds China’s Imperial dynasties and its modern-day Communist emperors. In Imperial China, the state saw prudence in creating ‘peasant-soldier colonies’ and rewarding loyal foot-soldiers with land for cultivation instead of money. Such soldier-farmers could then be called back to the service of the state whenever required.
The tense standoff on the India-China border that started in Ladakh since May 2020 shows no sign of abating despite the tenacious border negotiations. While partial disengagement has been achieved in some areas, China has opened a new front in Arunachal with the renaming of areas and creating border villages. However, there has been a marked assertiveness on part of the Indian government to counter China’s border strategy through the ‘Vibrant Villages Programme’.
At the launch of the initiative earlier this month, Union home minister Amit Shah asserted that India would not allow even an inch of its territory to be encroached upon, a far cry from the past diffidence that viewed the area seized by China as worthless because “not a blade of grass grew there’. This speaks of a new-found confidence in India’s taking on the China challenge as in the past minimal infrastructure along the Indian-side of the border was seen as necessary to slacken the ingress of Chinese troops in the eventuality of an invasion.
There is also a no-nonsense approach on the issue of India’s territorial integrity, starting with the repealing of special status to Jammu and Kashmir in 2019, despite criticism from China and Pakistan. Last month, under its G20 presidency, India hosted a meeting of the grouping in Arunachal and another one is scheduled in Srinagar in May.
In the book ‘Why Geography Matters’ geographer Harm de Blij wrote about how just before the first Gulf War in the 1990, Iraq published an official map, showing Kuwait to be within its borders, but the development was largely ignored by the world. Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom. We need to take China’s map-fare even more seriously since the Mandarin character for ‘map’ [图] is the same as the verb ‘to scheme’.
The article was published by Hindustan Times as Border villages can help fight Chinese build-up on April 24, 2023.
Read more by the author: China’s Meddling: Escalating Tensions between India & Bhutan.