India is building border projects against China

  • Over Rs 2,900 cr BRO projects to ensure security 

Beyond the Horizon

By Pradeep Kumar

The thick red line shows China has been beefing up its border infrastructures for years. India is also bolstering its capabilities in response. The Border Roads Organisation (BRO) projects worth over Rs 2,900 crore, inaugurated by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, promise to not only secure Indian Territory but also boost development of remote areas

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Modi and Chinese president Xi Jinping Xi on the sidelines of the BRICS summit in Johannesburg on August 24, had agreed to intensify efforts for “expeditious disengagement and de-escalation” of troops along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh, where the Indian military and China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have been involved in a protracted standoff since May 2020.

Though there is large-scale deployment of men and machines by both sides on the LAC and multiple military and diplomatic negotiations have failed to produce complete disengagement, China’s Defence Minister Gen. Li Shangfu, during his visit to New Delhi in April, had sought to delink the standoff from bilateral ties, saying the border situation was “stable”.

India’s stand on the matter is unchanged: unless the border row is resolved, relations cannot be normal. Despite Chinese claims, the situation on the ground tells a different story—the Chinese have been constructing military/dual-use infrastructure and strengthening existing installations at a frenetic pace in Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), often within striking distance of the border with India.

Whatever Chinese leaders may say, Indian military observers believe that China’s infrastructure build-up belies expectations of complete de-escalation and restoration of pre-April 2020 status quo, as India has been demanding.

Indeed, China observers are surprised at the fast-changing strategic geography of Tibet. As observed in satellite images and other reports, new strategic assets include construction and upgradation of roads in proximity to the LAC, underground missile launch silos, blast pens in airfields, positioning of fighter jets, construction of new railway lines and dual-use civilian-military villages. Around 50 air strips/airports and helipads are being completed to facilitate faster mobilisation of men and materiel. All these are indications of PLA’s extended deployment preparations.

Though the Indian military has readied itself for any misadventure with better infrastructure and defence preparedness, the swiftness of development across the LAC has been a point of concern for military planners in South Block. The Indian military firmly believes that the PLA is preparing for offensive operations, not shoring up its defences.

Jaidev Ranade, an expert on China, points out Beijing’s “almost fanatic” dual-use infrastructural developments in Tibet – new expressways, plans to build more airports and two new railway lines linking Tibet to Xinjiang and Yunnan. According to its latest budget, China is planning 191 key projects this year in Tibet, with an investment of more than 143 billion Yuan ($21 billion/ Rs 1.72 lakh crore).

After the brutal Galwan clash of June 2020, as the Indian army and the PLA both mobilised their troops, Indian military planners had confidence in the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) advantage over the Chinese. India has plenty of air bases in the foothills and can easily push its fighter jets to the border. The air bases are within 100 km of each other, while Chinese bases in Tibet are as far apart as 400 km. In addition, the Chinese air force did not have hardened aircraft shelters close to the border—considered a drawback. But, in the past three years, China has changed the situation drastically. Latest satellite images show that airfields at Lhasa, Ngari Gunsa in Tibet and Hotan in Xinjiang have been expanded, with new airfields and hardened shelters to protect fighter jets. Other images from Aksai Chin, which is claimed by India but under Chinese occupation, show multiple shafts and tunnels being carved into hillsides to construct shelters and bunkers for military use.

In a paper for the 2022 People’s Liberation Army Conference—a US initiative that studies and analyses the Chinese military—experts Brian Hart, Bonny Lin, and Matthew Funaiole elaborated on the PLA’s growing capabilities in its Western Theatre Command (WTC), which oversees Tibet and Xinjiang. They highlight that there are over 50 airports and helipads in Tibet and Xinjiang, of which 36 have been constructed and upgraded since 2017, with new ones closer to the Indian border. The under-construction Ngari Burang airport and the Shigatse Tingri airport are positioned 60 km from the Indian border. The authors wrote that earlier, over 500 km separated Chinese airports and Indian strategic facilities. Now, for example, the Bareilly Air Force station is only 200 km from Ngari Burang.

An Indian defence analyst adds that at the Lhasa-Gong­gar airport, around 250 km from Tawang, Arunachal Pra­d­esh, hardened aircraft shelters and a runway are under construction, with the added presence of radar and electronic warfare units. The Hotan airfield, too, has an expanded runway and new buildings, along with UAVs and J-20 stealth jets. At Shigatse, 155 km from the Indian border in Sikkim, China deploys its frontline fighter jets, and CH4 and WZ-7 rec­o­nnais­ance drones patrol the border, says an analyst. After the Yangtse clash, north of Tawang district, in December 2022, China deployed its advanced drones closer to the border. “Upgra­ded airfields in Tibet, where the presence of stealth aircraft and UAVs is detected, indicate Chinese intentions,” an observer claims.

Apa Lhamo, a research fellow at the Delhi-based Centre for China Analysis and Strategy, draws attention to China’s proposed G695 highway that would link Xinjiang with Tibet. Due to be completed in 2035, it will traverse the length of Aksai Chin through the eastern section of Depsang plains, south past the Galwan Valley and towards Pangong Tso, a saline lake surrounded by jagged peaks and unforgiving ridgelines. “It is a strategic artery that will connect these flashpoints to mainland China and give the PLA a new supply route,” Apa says.

A study by the UK-based thinktank Chatham House obse­rves that in the Galwan Valley, a number of PLA bases are now connected by roads that lead to the main standoff site with the Indian army. In Raki Nala, a river valley south of the contested Depsang plains, Chinese outposts capable of blocking Indian patrols, are visible. At Pangong Tso, a bridge is nearing completion. When finished, it will allow the rapid deployment of Chinese forces from the PLA’s Rutog military garrison.

“China’s infrastructure development in border and depth areas allows for faster deployment and logistical support, while providing better control over remote, earlier unpopulated, forward areas,” geospatial intelligence researcher Damien Symon said. The proximity of these new projects to the LAC, he adds, increases the risk of inadvertent clashes.

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