China Objects to Bhutan Wildlife Refuge, Launching Another Border Dispute with India

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The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), already embroiled in a bloody border dispute with India in the Himalayas, is also clashing with India’s ally Bhutan over a wildlife sanctuary located in what China describes as disputed territory along the India-China border.

The refuge is known as the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary (SWS), located in the eastern Trashigang district of Bhutan, a tiny kingdom of about 750,000 in the Himalayas near Tibet and Nepal. The sanctuary covers about 650 square kilometers and is home to some extremely rare wildlife, including the red panda, as well as a nomadic tribe called the Brokpas.

An international environmentalist organization called the Global Environment Facility (GEF) was holding a virtual meeting in early June to discuss various grant proposals, when China’s representatives to the organization unexpectedly objected to a grant for the SWS, claiming that the sanctuary is located on “disputed” territory. 

The kingdom of Bhutan responded to this unprecedented claim by angrily insisting the SWS is located on the “integral and sovereign territory of Bhutan.”

Suspicions were immediately raised that China is really interested in starting another border battle with India, whose Arunachal Pradesh province is adjacent to the wildlife sanctuary. China has never tried to claim the SWS before, but it has a few other border disputes with Bhutan and has long insisted that Arunachal Pradesh is really “South Tibet” and rightfully belongs to Beijing.

According to a report by the Hindustan Times on Wednesday, the majority of the GEF’s governing council sided with Bhutan and “instantly rubbished” China’s shocking claim to the SWS. The council was so unimpressed with China’s claim that it would not even allow the details of the Chinese objection to be recorded in minutes of meeting, only a footnote that said China “abstained” from voting on the SWS grant. Bhutan wants the GEF to go even further and purge all references to China’s “baseless claim” from its documents.

Business Insider India (BI) warned on Wednesday that China will probably keep discovering new “disputed areas” along its borders for the next ten years, after spending the previous twenty building up the economic and military power needed to intimidate even large rivals such as India.

Former U.S. Pacific Fleet intelligence director James Fannell told BI China has an aggressive plan for expansion that stretches from the 100th anniversary of the CCP’s founding in 2021 to the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 2049. This plan will involve “reclaiming” various swathes of land and sea the CCP has been telling its people are historically the rightful property of China.

Fannell cited the sudden “dispute” over the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary as an example of Chinese aggression, along with its provocations against Taiwan’s air defense zone, the end of Hong Kong’s limited autonomy, activity in the South China Sea, and the bloody border brawl with India in the Ladakh region of the Himalayas on June 15.

“They are going to use everything in their, what they call, comprehensive national power – diplomacy, economic, information, military – to get to their objective, which is to have territorial integrated sovereignty and inclusion of everything that they believe is their sovereign territory,” Fannell warned.

China’s state-run Global Times mocked these concerns on Wednesday, claiming that India “faces no foreign invasion or bullying now” and warnings to the contrary are merely paranoid eruptions of “Hindu nationalism.”

As is common with CCP propaganda, the Global Times accused the United States of using India as a puppet to weaken noble and peace-loving China, claiming the U.S. has “recklessly smeared and interfered in China-India relations.” One example of a “reckless smear” provided by the editorial was the United States praising India as the world’s largest democracy.

It might seem odd for even China’s tireless propagandists to treat India’s fears of invasion as paranoid delusions just over two weeks after Indian territory really was invaded by Chinese troops, prompting a hand-to-hand battle that killed dozens of soldiers on both sides. The official line from Beijing is that India provoked the fight by trespassing on Chinese territory.

India clearly is still worried about Chinese aggression in Ladakh. A third round of “disengagement” talks was held for 12 hours on Tuesday, but there is still little sign of either side actually disengaging, with sources saying both India and China are still reinforcing their military presences in the area.

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