Beyond Ladakh: Here's how China is scaling up its assets along the India-Tibet frontier

Beijing continues to enhance an elaborate transport network and military infrastructure across Tibet’s border regions even as it pressures New Delhi into stopping work on its side of the LAC.

ByShweta Desai
Beyond Ladakh: Here's how China is scaling up its assets along the India-Tibet frontier
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Just days before Chinese troops made incursions into eastern Ladakh’s Galwan Valley and Pangong Tso lake in an aggressive reaction to the construction of road infrastructure by India along the Line of Actual Control, China completed the blasting of all 47 tunnels on the 435-km rail linking Lhasa to Nyingchi in the Tibet Autonomous Region, or TAR.

The Lhasa-Nyingchi link is one of the four sections of the Sichuan-Tibet railway envisioned to connect Lhasa to Chengdu in 15 hours and, eventually, with the Yadong port overlooking Sikkim and the Chumbi Valley – the site of Doklam standoff – as well as the Nielamu port (Gyirong) near the Nepal border via Xigaze prefecture.

As of April, China had already built 119 of the 120 bridges and laid about 115 km of the tracks. When it is made operational by early 2021, it will be the first electric railway in the region, offering tourists scenic Tibetan views at 160 km an hour, and enabling Beijing, in the event of a contingency, to shuttle the People’s Liberation Army forces from one base in Lhasa to another in Nyingchi, close to Arunachal Pradesh. The Sichuan-Tibet and the Yunnan-Tibet rail lines, currently under construction, closely circumvent India’s eastern frontiers.

Retired Lt Gen Vinod Bhatia, the director of the Center for Joint Warfare Studies, foresees the strategic route having adverse consequences for India. “It will provide mobility for rapid reinforcements from Chengdu – the headquarters of the Chengdu Military Region, which produces the majority of military provisions and is the base of the 13 and 14 Army Groups – from west to east across the TAR,’’ he says.

There’s no sign of de-escalation in the Ladakh sector yet, and China seems to be in no mood to further the “peace and tranquility” agreement along other parts of its border with India in Tibet. On May 8, it began constructing a new military training base at Drowa village in Lhoka prefecture close to India (184 km from Tawang) and the Bhutan border (287 km from Thimphu).

Namrata Hasija, research associate at Delhi’s Center for China Analysis and Strategy, who first noted this development in the local daily Tibet Times, claims work is going on a war footing as four fighter jets and 21 military buses were sent to the site recently and more will follow in coming months. “The training site near Bhutan border is located along the road of Indus military base near Mansarovar lake in Ngari prefecture. It should be ready by 2022 and the two bases are expected to be linked. How it will aid the Chinese will be clear when there is a Doklam-like situation in that region in future,” she says.

Her monitoring of Chinese state media and writings by PLA commanders reveals disturbances are on the anvil in the Sikkim sector, Hasija claims. “India will pay back for Doklam in Sikkim. For China, the 73-day standoff was only diffusing tensions and it’s not giving up its claim. It wants to change the border trijunction so that it can oversee and break the strategic chicken neck [Siliguri] corridor,’’ she warns.

The third session of the 11th People's Congress has vowed to continue enhancing the road, rail and airways network across Tibet in 2020. It is coming up unfettered all along Tibet’s border regions with India in Ngari, Shannan, Xigaze, and Nyingchi prefecture, even as China routinely protests against road construction on the Indian side of the LAC, and even arm-twists New Delhi into stopping work.

After recovering from the pandemic in March, China resumed construction activities in the TAR, building a third terminal on the Lhasa Gongga and expanding the Ngari Gunsa – dual use airports for civilian and military purposes. Work is also underway at the 3+1 airports in the southern Tibetan areas of Dingri near Nepal border, Lhoka, and Burung close to Arunachal Pradesh and the Bhutan border to increase its air capacity. Ten new airports are coming up in Xinjiang province, including one in Yutian county, adjacent to the Aksai Chin region, the northernmost territory contested by India and part of the new Ladakh map released last year. Analysts in a Global Times report say “the airports could also serve a national defense purpose in case of war, making the mobilization of resources quicker than land transportation”.

To boost development in Tibet, China is starting a pilot project constructing 30 towns along the border. This is in addition to over 600 border defence villages or xiaokang, most of which are located close to Arunachal. Almost all villages now have broadband internet access, including 5G at certain places, which is extended to the PLA’s border posts for faster communication with command heads.

These are only the latest developments in China’s strategic infrastructure in the border region built over the decades. Although Beijing downplays New Delhi’s threat perceptions, facilities like the 1,00,000 km of paved roads in the region have augmented its potential to move combat power, and deploy additional troops and resources quickly whenever there is a trigger or a border skirmish, like the ongoing standoff in Ladakh. The satellite imagery pointing to the military build-up of artillery, trucks, infantry vehicles near the Hot Springs, Gogra sector, shows rapid construction of a blacktopped road that has enabled the advancement of infantry to the LAC. The presence of PLA ground forces here poses a direct threat to the 255-km Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi road, which provides connectivity to the border areas in Sub Sector North.

Zhao Xiaozhuo, senior colonel and senior fellow at the Academy of Military Sciences of the PLA, writing in the Communist Party-owned China Daily, notes that there is “a lot of criticism in India about China's road and railway construction in the Tibet autonomous region” and asks, “Why is India so sensitive about China's infrastructure construction?’’

The piece, published during the Doklam standoff in July 2017, surmises that “roads can be the path to wealth or the way to war”. “In China there is a saying, ‘build roads before building wealth’, and road construction has played an important role in the country's rapid development.’’

India perceives China’s well-planned and strategically designed all-weather infrastructure as a ramp-up in its capability to “build up and wage a war” simultaneously as against what is known as the “two season capability” in the military parlance.

“If the forces intend to prepare for a war, in the region where the typical border heights range between 8,000 feet to 19,000 feet, they first have to build supporting infrastructure in the advanced season – mid April to October when the snow melts – to hold positions and sustain troops. China lacked such ability in 1962, when it was forced to declare a ceasefire and withdraw forces from the occupied positions in the Northeast and Arunachal. But now they are well-equipped,’’ says Bhatia, who has written detailed papers on the strategic implications of the burgeoning infrastructure in the TAR.

The asymmetry in critical infrastructure on the Indian side creating a military imbalance is glaring. A course correction in the misjudged policy of neglecting border regions began around 2006 when 73 strategic roads or the Indo-China Border Roads, or ICBR, were identified for construction. The first phase of 61 roads, totalling around 3,346 km, was to be completed in 2012; just 75 percent of the work had been completed by the end of last year.

“We need to look at our progress critically,’’ Bhatia says. “Are we ramping our projects or finishing past projects. The roads planned in 2005 are being operationalised now and no new road or infrastructure projects are conceptualised or started.’’

Years of budget cuts, delays in administrative clearances from state governments and overlapping ministries, lack of manpower, equipment and resources, and nature’s fury have led to extension of deadlines, impeding progress. Unlike the contiguous terrain in TAR, India has a fractured border front – surrounded by dense Himalayan forests, national park reserves, razor sharp ridges, valleys, glacial bodies, and elevated heights – which adds to the problems. The last few years have witnessed major changes but there won’t be marked improvement until the basics remain ignored. The Border Roads Organisation remains underfunded, budget allocation this year is Rs 5,711 crore as against the projected need of Rs 8,060 crore.

The military’s top brass has reminded the government of the urgency of all-weather connectivity along the ICBR for faster troop mobility and supply lines. The government has, however, clarified that it undertakes infrastructure development on the China border based on threat perception and the availability of resources, not as war planning contingency.

The lack of facilities along the 4,057-km long LAC comes at a heavy cost financially and in manpower. The majority of border outposts are not connected by road and are dependent on convoys of mules to supply resources. Troops must foot it out on long- and short-range patrols. In contrast, the PLA troops patrol most of the spots in Humvees. The Indo-Tibetan Border Police, the paramilitary manning the extreme heights of the LAC, had to make do with Sports Utility Vehicles when they demanded Humvees for remote outposts.

The border sectors in Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim, and Arunachal Pradesh are connected by a single road axis that is vulnerable to monsoon and winter snow, and open for limited days within which the forces must transport men and material. The plan to construct 14 strategic railway lines along the borders with Pakistan and China, approved in 2010, appears to have been shelved due to the non-availability of funds. Of the 40-odd Advanced Landing Ground, less than a dozen are operational, allowing permanent settlement for Indian Air Force personnel.

Rajeswari Rajagopalan, distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, has been tracking Chinese military and development activities in Tibet for over a decade and anticipated trouble ahead of the tensions in Ladakh. “India woke up to the problem of infrastructure gap late in the day, after the Chinese had nearly completed the roads, railways and airfields,’’ she says, adding that the asymmetry is not going to go away anytime soon because we will always be catching up.

Both Rajgopalan and Bhatia emphasise the operational combat experience as the balancing factor in the asymmetry which the Indian forces possess and have an upper hand in. They also stress the need to prioritise rapid infrastructure development without which it would not be possible to get manpower and resources from the plains to the border areas quickly.

The PLA knows its shortcomings and that is precisely why they are upping the pace of simulating combat scenarios through single service and joint service drills to test their abilities and to check how quickly they can mobilise resources in border areas, says Rajgopalan, pointing to the major military drill in January where China deployed two new weapons, the Type 15 lightweight tank and the C-181 155 mm cannon vehicle-mounted howitzer “to boost the high-altitude combat capability of the PLA in Tibet”.

Hasija adds that in April and May, when fistfights and heckling between border forces was on, China conducted three military drills in Tibet: a live-fire drill, transregional movement of the air force, and the cavalry charge drill by the 76 Army Group in charge of operations against India.

“There is a reason behind the activities in the TAR, which is the PLA’s western theater command overlooking India’s border from Aksai Chin to Arunachal Pradesh,” Hasija says, adding that the military exercises and infrastructure building are part of China’s posturing on the security front, that it is ready to defend its borders.

As new roads, railways and airfields come up on both sides of the border, these sites, analysts say, will become flashpoints in the conflict between the two countries.

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