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Tackling China’s infra build-up along LAC

ByDeependra Singh Hooda
Jun 14, 2022 08:41 PM IST

China’s infra development across LAC is impressive, but rather than being alarmed, India must develop a plan that strengthens its deterrent posture

While on a recent visit to India, General Charles A Flynn, the commanding general of the United States (US) Army Pacific, described the infrastructure build-up by the Chinese Western Theatre Command in Tibet and Xinjiang as “alarming” and “eye-opening”. These remarks came two weeks after the latest satellite images revealed that China was building a second bridge over the Pangong Tso. This bridge can carry tanks and facilitate faster movement of military forces between the north and south banks of the lake.

PREMIUM
Indian military planners have been of the view that the time taken by the PLA to move significant forces into Tibet and build up logistics for a conflict would provide an adequate warning period to the Indian military for its preparation. However, with faster mobilisation by the PLA, this assumption may require a rethink. (REUTERS)

As is usual in such cases, the Opposition accuses the government of being soft in its response to Chinese activities along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), while the government issues routine statements that it “takes all adequate, appropriate measures to safeguard territorial integrity, sovereignty.” After a few days, media interest moves to the next catchy headline.

Flynn raised the question of what the Chinese intentions were. This is an important question, and in attempting to answer this, we need to take a holistic look at the type of infrastructure that is being built. In this context, it would be useful to look at two reports: Tracking China’s Sudden Airpower Expansion On Its Western Border by The Drive and How Is China Expanding its Infrastructure to Project Power Along its Western Borders by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The first area of infrastructure development is aimed at enhancing Chinese airpower. The Indian Air Force (IAF) has long enjoyed an advantage in air operations over the Tibetan Plateau. The limited number of military airfields in Tibet and the problems of operating from high altitude was a severe handicap for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force. To overcome this, following the Doklam incident in 2017, 37 airports and heliports within Tibet and Xinjiang have been newly constructed or upgraded, of which at least 22 are identifiable as military or dual-use facilities.

Hardened shelters for housing military aircraft, underground facilities to ensure survivability, air defence missiles for protection, runways extension, and helicopter operations facilities are visible at many airfields. All of this is aimed at reducing India’s advantage in the employment of airpower during a conflict along LAC.

The second area of infrastructure development is related to the ability of the PLA to rapidly mobilise its forces from its mainland bases to their battle locations through an improved road and rail network. According to official figures, between 2015 and 2020, Tibet’s highways grew from 7,840 km to 11,820 km, a 51% increase. In addition, in June 2021, a high-speed rail line connecting Lhasa and Nyingchi entered service, covering the 435 km distance in 2.5 hours. Among the early passengers on this railway line were PLA soldiers moving for an exercise.

Indian military planners have been of the view that the time taken by the PLA to move significant forces into Tibet and build up logistics for a conflict would provide an adequate warning period to the Indian military for its preparation. However, with faster mobilisation by the PLA, this assumption may require a rethink.

Finally, infrastructure is being developed for speedy application of combat power at LAC. For example, it has been reported that China has constructed at least eight key roads toward LAC from the G219 highway. These roads provide connectivity to areas opposite important Indian military posts in Ladakh, from Daulat Beg Oldie to Galwan Valley, Pangong Tso, and Chumar. In addition, infrastructure such as the bridge at Pangong Tso will assist in the faster north-south movement of troops.

A holistic look at China’s infrastructure development across LAC clarifies their intentions. It is to overcome their shortfalls, neutralise India’s airpower edge over Tibet, and increase the PLA’s combat capability for war fighting along LAC. While this does not imply that an India-China war could break out shortly, the threat has certainly heightened.

On the Indian side, there is an understanding that the enhanced PLA capability needs a matching response. As a result, the Indian Army has redeployed significant forces from the Pakistan border to the northern front. A major push has been given to infrastructure development, improving surveillance, and construction of roads. After the 2020 standoff in eastern Ladakh, the government has sanctioned the construction of 32 roads along LAC.

Apart from infrastructure development and troop deployments, which are necessary measures, the need to define a long-term military strategy is of greater importance. Deterrence has been the cornerstone of India’s military strategy against China. Deterrence was based on a strong army deployment along LAC, advantages of the IAF in high-altitude operations, and a dominant naval position in the Indian Ocean.

With the growing Chinese military capability across LAC, there is a concern that deterrence may weaken. This could encourage China to use military force, albeit in a limited way, similar to what happened in 2020. To prevent this from happening, India must focus on capabilities that seek to impose punishing costs in the event of a conflict. In addition, capabilities must be developed to impose costs beyond the immediate area of conflict through long-range missiles, cyber warfare, and space weapons. China’s infrastructure development across LAC is impressive, but rather than being alarmed, India must develop a strategy that strengthens its deterrent posture.

Lieutenant-General Deependra Singh Hooda is former General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Indian Army’s Northern Command and a senior fellow, Delhi Policy Group The views expressed are personal

While on a recent visit to India, General Charles A Flynn, the commanding general of the United States (US) Army Pacific, described the infrastructure build-up by the Chinese Western Theatre Command in Tibet and Xinjiang as “alarming” and “eye-opening”. These remarks came two weeks after the latest satellite images revealed that China was building a second bridge over the Pangong Tso. This bridge can carry tanks and facilitate faster movement of military forces between the north and south banks of the lake.

PREMIUM
Indian military planners have been of the view that the time taken by the PLA to move significant forces into Tibet and build up logistics for a conflict would provide an adequate warning period to the Indian military for its preparation. However, with faster mobilisation by the PLA, this assumption may require a rethink. (REUTERS)

As is usual in such cases, the Opposition accuses the government of being soft in its response to Chinese activities along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), while the government issues routine statements that it “takes all adequate, appropriate measures to safeguard territorial integrity, sovereignty.” After a few days, media interest moves to the next catchy headline.

Flynn raised the question of what the Chinese intentions were. This is an important question, and in attempting to answer this, we need to take a holistic look at the type of infrastructure that is being built. In this context, it would be useful to look at two reports: Tracking China’s Sudden Airpower Expansion On Its Western Border by The Drive and How Is China Expanding its Infrastructure to Project Power Along its Western Borders by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The first area of infrastructure development is aimed at enhancing Chinese airpower. The Indian Air Force (IAF) has long enjoyed an advantage in air operations over the Tibetan Plateau. The limited number of military airfields in Tibet and the problems of operating from high altitude was a severe handicap for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force. To overcome this, following the Doklam incident in 2017, 37 airports and heliports within Tibet and Xinjiang have been newly constructed or upgraded, of which at least 22 are identifiable as military or dual-use facilities.

Hardened shelters for housing military aircraft, underground facilities to ensure survivability, air defence missiles for protection, runways extension, and helicopter operations facilities are visible at many airfields. All of this is aimed at reducing India’s advantage in the employment of airpower during a conflict along LAC.

The second area of infrastructure development is related to the ability of the PLA to rapidly mobilise its forces from its mainland bases to their battle locations through an improved road and rail network. According to official figures, between 2015 and 2020, Tibet’s highways grew from 7,840 km to 11,820 km, a 51% increase. In addition, in June 2021, a high-speed rail line connecting Lhasa and Nyingchi entered service, covering the 435 km distance in 2.5 hours. Among the early passengers on this railway line were PLA soldiers moving for an exercise.

Indian military planners have been of the view that the time taken by the PLA to move significant forces into Tibet and build up logistics for a conflict would provide an adequate warning period to the Indian military for its preparation. However, with faster mobilisation by the PLA, this assumption may require a rethink.

Finally, infrastructure is being developed for speedy application of combat power at LAC. For example, it has been reported that China has constructed at least eight key roads toward LAC from the G219 highway. These roads provide connectivity to areas opposite important Indian military posts in Ladakh, from Daulat Beg Oldie to Galwan Valley, Pangong Tso, and Chumar. In addition, infrastructure such as the bridge at Pangong Tso will assist in the faster north-south movement of troops.

A holistic look at China’s infrastructure development across LAC clarifies their intentions. It is to overcome their shortfalls, neutralise India’s airpower edge over Tibet, and increase the PLA’s combat capability for war fighting along LAC. While this does not imply that an India-China war could break out shortly, the threat has certainly heightened.

On the Indian side, there is an understanding that the enhanced PLA capability needs a matching response. As a result, the Indian Army has redeployed significant forces from the Pakistan border to the northern front. A major push has been given to infrastructure development, improving surveillance, and construction of roads. After the 2020 standoff in eastern Ladakh, the government has sanctioned the construction of 32 roads along LAC.

Apart from infrastructure development and troop deployments, which are necessary measures, the need to define a long-term military strategy is of greater importance. Deterrence has been the cornerstone of India’s military strategy against China. Deterrence was based on a strong army deployment along LAC, advantages of the IAF in high-altitude operations, and a dominant naval position in the Indian Ocean.

With the growing Chinese military capability across LAC, there is a concern that deterrence may weaken. This could encourage China to use military force, albeit in a limited way, similar to what happened in 2020. To prevent this from happening, India must focus on capabilities that seek to impose punishing costs in the event of a conflict. In addition, capabilities must be developed to impose costs beyond the immediate area of conflict through long-range missiles, cyber warfare, and space weapons. China’s infrastructure development across LAC is impressive, but rather than being alarmed, India must develop a strategy that strengthens its deterrent posture.

Lieutenant-General Deependra Singh Hooda is former General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Indian Army’s Northern Command and a senior fellow, Delhi Policy Group The views expressed are personal

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