During his visit to Nyingtri and Lhasa in July 2021, Chinese leader Xi Jinping showed a renewed resolve and fortitude to obliterate the cohesion of Tibetan nationalism, identity, and the Tibetan people’s steadfast faith in Buddhism. He spoke about the need to Sinicize Tibetan Buddhism, instill a collective sense of the “Chinese nation,” and make Tibetans identify with China, Chinese people, Chinese culture, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
Importantly, Xi also stressed the need to consolidate and securitize Tibet’s borders. He asked people to “take root” (resettle) in the border areas, guard the borders, and defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country. The Sino-Indian border in the Tibetan region is disputed, with China claiming the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh as “South Tibet.”
The geopolitical significance of Tibet is increasingly important for the CCP. It has only gained prominence since Xi came to power in late 2012, with subsequent border clashes with neighboring India at Doklam on the Bhutan-China border in 2017 and Galwan Valley (located on the western sector of the China-India border) in 2020, and a more recent skirmish at Tawang in December of last year.
The composition of the delegation from the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) for the 20th Party Congress also strongly substantiates the increasing importance the CCP gives to Tibet’s borders. Out of the 20 representatives of Tibetan ethnicity from the TAR for the 20th Party Congress, six were from the border villages of Lhoka, Nyingtri, Shigatse, and Ngari. In addition, the party secretaries (all of Han ethnicity) of critical border prefectures like Nyingtri, Lhoka, and Ngari were part of the delegation.
Tibetans living in the border areas of the TAR are thus duty-bound to be the “guardian of the land and builders of happy homes.” They are given subsidies to patrol and protect the borders and are coerced to relocate to the border areas.
Infrastructure development in the border areas has increased, including the construction of 624 border defense villages. In its 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025), China allocated 190 billion yuan (approximately $29.3 billion) for infrastructure development in border areas, including civil and military infrastructure, airports, railway lines, expressways, roadways, dams, and tourist spots. All this development will have consequent implications for India.
Proposed Budget Plans for Border Securitization
China’s increased attention to Tibet’s borders is also reflected in the TAR Budget 2023, passed during the first session of the 12th TAR People’s Congress on January 16. The overall budget compared to last year has decreased from 358.08 billion yuan to 300.76 billion. However, the TAR’s budget for border-related infrastructure plans and additional expenses is increased from 2.96 billion yuan in 2022 to 3.53 billion yuan in 2023.
The details of the TAR budget and their proposed plans to build up border defense and security are revealing, if not worrisome, for neighboring countries like India. The plans included building up physical and technical defense systems, adding lucrative deals and subsidies to attract people, including Tibetan farmers and nomads from the “heartlands” and high-altitude regions, to relocate to border areas, speeding up the construction of border towns and villages and oxygen supply projects for counties and towns above 3,500 meters above sea level.
In addition to preferential policies in health, education, and employment, border residents or the “guardians of the homeland,” as the CCP calls them, will receive monetary grants: 12,600 yuan per year per person for class A border villages; 6,300 yuan per year per person at “undecided frontiers” or disputed areas; and subsidy standard increment of 5,100 per year per person for border residents at established borders, a continuation of last year’s payments. A pilot program to support and attract professionals to border areas is also included in the budget.
Both the work reports of the TAR People’s Government and the TAR People’s Congress, released on January 24 and 28 respectively, emphasized the importance the TAR placed on the border, and pledged to continue to build up border defense and security. The work reports also extensively stressed plans in the border areas for the next five years.
On January 26, on the fourth day of the Lunar New Year – and Republic Day in India – Tempa Wangchuk, the commissioner of Ngari Administrative Office, inspected relocated people in Chakgang (Jiagang in Mandarin) border village in Ruthok County and Tashigang in Demchok of Gar County in Ngari, both on the border with India. Chakgang was used by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as a military base during the Sino-Indian war in 1962.
During the inspection, the commissioner met villagers, party cadres, and soldiers on duty and urged them to be patriotic and protect and defend the borders of the ”motherland.” Tempa Wangchuk, accompanied by Nyima Tsering, secretary-general of the Ngari Administrative Office, inspected Tashigang village of Demchok in great detail, met party working teams and examined their work reports. They also met villagers and told them to follow the Yümai sisters (Dolker and Yangzom), who have been “safeguarding the village from foreign occupation” and whom Xi Jinping commended in 2017.
Amid these efforts, there have been local reports of encroachment onto the Indian side of the de facto border. In an interview given to Voice of Tibet, Rinzin Tengyal, who had been the village head of Demchok in Ladakh, India, for more than 17 years, complained of infiltrations into Demchok. He had come down to New Delhi and planned to protest at the Chinese Embassy, saying people from the Chinese side of the border had occupied the area where where he and his villagers used to shepherd their flocks, and even taken away 47 of his yaks in the last few years.
Rinzin raised his concerns over China’s massive infrastructure development in and around Koyul and Demchok area, including installing security cameras, “two giant towers,” a hydropower station in Ngari bordering Ladakh, and three mobile towers in Tashigang and two other places in the area. Highly frustrated and ostensibly angry, Rinzin intended to “sacrifice his life” in protest but was requested to stop the protest by a BJP Member of Parliament from Ladakh.
This author spoke to Urgain Chodon, Rinzin’s daughter, who confirmed the reports. She added that another 22 yaks were taken by two “Chinese ladies” around September-October of last year, and that Nyelung village in Demchok is now under complete control of the Chinese.
Sushant Singh, a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research and a visiting lecturer at Yale University, in an article titled “Out of Control” published in The Caravan in October, acknowledged China’s infrastructural development in Demchok in Ladakh, India. Singh’s reporting found that the PLA had “moved deeper to block Indian graziers” in summer of 2022 in addition to building an “unpaved, steep road” in the south of Charding La.
With an increasing emphasis on border defense and security in Tibet, including frequent inspections by Chinese officials, the tensions between India and China over borders is likely to get murkier and possibly birth more skirmishes moving forward. With a substantial TAR budget allocated for border-related infrastructure, relocation projects, and lucrative deals to attract people from other parts of Tibet and even from China to relocate and resettle in the border areas, tensions are set to grow.
China is investing heavily and strategically in border-related infrastructure and “enriching and prospering” border residents. India could perhaps follow suit and consolidate its borders in terms of investing more and giving vital importance to its borders, securitizing and ensuring safety for people like Rinzin living in the border areas.
There appears to be a disconnect between authorities and the people living in border areas, and, more often than not, the central government’s investments and subsidies seem to be pocketed by local authorities before reaching grassroots and concerned residents, an issue the government of India should seriously consider and pay heed to.