China bolstering Tibet military infrastructure
There is mounting evidence that China has sped up work to build and expand military and civilian facilities in Tibet and surrounding areas that will enhance its military posture along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) amid the standoff with India in the Ladakh sector.
These new developments come on the back of China more than doubling the total number of airbases, air defence positions, and heliports near the LAC during 2017-20, as detailed in a report issued last year by Stratfor, a leading security and intelligence consultancy based in the US.
There is also growing evidence of the build-up of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and civilian facilities in sectors other than Ladakh, such as along the disputed border in Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh. In these areas, China has embarked on an extensive campaign of building villages in disputed regions with the intention of settling thousands of people in hitherto uninhabited areas.
The latest open source satellite imagery suggests China has improved connectivity between key cities and military hubs in Tibet to reduce time taken to move troops and logistics towards the frontier.
China has made several improvements to military facilities at Lhasa Gonggar airport, the main airport for the capital of the Tibet Autonomous region, including renovating a surface-to-air missile site, a site for an air defence system, a suspected support site for the air force and new hardened shelters to protect combat jets. It has also improved the Lhasa heliport, which houses Z-20 attack helicopters.
At the same time, the Hotan airbase in Xinjiang, part of the PLA western theatre command and crucial for air operations in Ladakh sector of the LAC, has undergone a rapid upgrade in the last few months. According to satellite imagery posted by the Twitter user who uses the handle @detresfa_, the new “infrastructure upgrades [are] aimed directly at boosting military capabilities of the site”.
The upgrades include new runways and ammunition storage and auxiliary support facilities that would help increase sorties rates, reduce congestion in case more aircraft are assigned to the airbase and quicker turnaround times for aircraft operating from the airbase during a potential conflict.
The Hotan airbase has J-11 and J-20 combat jets, electronic warfare aircraft, airborne early warning and control aircraft and drones. The latest imagery suggests five new munitions bunkers are being built at the airbase.
In March last year, China began laying tracks for the 825-km railway line linking Hotan and Ruaqiang, which is expected to link up with the Golmud-Korla railway line and the Qinghai–Tibet railway line, and enhance mobility between key military bases.
“Given the current military tensions with India, the rail connectivity would smoothen logistics for the Chinese army across the Tibetan Plateau and Xinjiang desert. This would allow for rapid deployments along with heavier equipment moving to the frontline much faster,” @detresfa_ said in a tweet.
While Chinese authorities have pointed to the socio-economic benefits of such railway projects, experts believe they have a strong military dimension too.
At the same time, China has ramped up upgrades of military infrastructure at places such as Golmud, the third largest city on the Tibetan Plateau. Over the past few months, Golmud has served as a key staging post for Chinese troops and heavy equipment being moved towards the LAC, thanks to its large railway terminal and airbase. The latest imagery shows Chinese authorities are now building a large heliport at Golmud, with more than 60 hangars.
According to last year’s Stratfor report, China built 13 new military positions, including airbases and air defence units, near the LAC after the 2017 standoff at Doklam. Work on four heliports began after the current tensions in Ladakh emerged in the open in May 2020.
China has also created a surface-to-air missile site on the banks of Mansarovar Lake in Tibet, and developed two new air defence positions that cover sensitive stretches of the disputed border in Doklam and Sikkim sectors. It is also working on what appears to be a major military logistics hub at Xigatse in Tibet.
Strategic affairs expert Brahma Chellaney said the Chinese upgrades of military and dual-use infrastructure had begun around the time of the Doklam standoff of 2017 and picked up steam last year.
“In the talks held so far, China has been taking India round and round about the bush. Its intention is to buy time and consolidate its hold on the land it has encroached upon, and bring India under increased military pressure,” he said.
China’s tactics had led external affairs minister S Jaishankar to say that the bilateral relationship is very disturbed and there was no clarity of where things are headed, Chellaney pointed out.