Infrastructure Build-Up at the Core and India-China Border Tensions

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Research Fellow and Centre Coordinator East Asia Centre The Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi Dr. Jagannath Panda

In the most violent clash to have taken place along the India-China border since 1975, twenty Indian soldiers were reported dead when a physical altercation broke out between soldiers from both sides on the night of June 15, 2020 in the Galwan Valley, a part of Ladakh. Tensions along the border had been increasing since May when China sent in troops into the disputed territory in a bid to thwart India's Border Roads Organization (BRO) from continuing with infrastructural construction in the region. The building of a new high-altitude road leading an Indian air force base was a key trigger of the dispute; the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi (DSDBO) road is a key strategic infrastructure that is 255 kms long and can rapidly improve India's abilities to transport men and equipment during conflict. It connects the capital city of Leh with the vital Daulat Beg Oldi airstrip of 2008, running parallel to the LAC as an all-weather road, near to the Karakoram Pass. 
 
The India-China boundary has been a major point of contention for many years now; however, post-Galwan, the focus has recalibrated on the same. The race for building strategic infrastructure along the region has intensified as a direct result of assertive ambitions by parties involved; both nations are trying to out-build the other. Recently, it has been reported that China is developing two air defense positions near the India-China boundary which will spread over Naku La in Sikkim as well as the area contested under the 2017 Doklam standoff. Since Doklam, which also emerged as a result of construction by China on the India-Bhutan-China trijunction, China's PLA has dominated the areas it had crossed into during the standoff. 
 
Beijing's release of a position paper on Doklam –in a rather uncommon move for China –served as a future pointer of the nature of China-India boundary disputes. It highlighted how China plans to influence the status-quo on the ground by taking on a more aggressive stand and doubling down on building military infrastructure in the region. The 2017 report by Xi Jinping at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Part of China (CPC) also refurbished on infrastructure goals, especially along border areas. It presented plans of accelerating development along border region to promote “stability and security” of the communities; further, with the goal of building a “modern border defense”, improving national defense mobilization was set to take priority.
 
Since Doklam, Beijing has made attempts to get Bhutan to sign a deal on Doklam that will allow China to convert its control over the areas into a working boundary line. This practice falls under the “salami slicing” tactic China implements allowing it to divide-and-conquer; the policy has seen main imposition by Beijing in Doklam, the SCS and the Himalayan border and seems to now be slowly finding its way into Galwan. The Chinese have likewise proceeded with their development and construction projects on their side of the LAC in the western part despite the fact that there has been no progress ahead in withdrawal talks. As per sources, the development is intended to give back-up to the large number of troops China has pushed ahead closer to Ladakh, and furthermore into the Indian side, and may likewise be a potential pressure strategy. Furthermore, it shows an inclination to stay stationed for the upcoming harsh winters in the region. 
 
China is believed to be constructing bridges, roads and camps in the Galwan Valley and also Lanak La, which is part of occupied Aksai Chin. A road link between Lanak La and Krygmo Traggar is reportedly being upgraded by China. Beijing's withdrawal in July from the Y Junction in the Galwan Valley, which is on the Indian side, is considered more to be an aftermath of the Galwan stream's rising water level, which made their stay illogical, as opposed to any genuine exertion to separate. 
 
India's building of the DSDBO has severely displeased China; however, India is only starting to play catch-up to PLA's long-term infrastructure building in the region. 125 bridges and 73 strategic roads have been endorsed along various divisions on the Indian side of the LAC. However, progress has been moderate. Just 35 roads have been done up until now - key among them are Damping-Yangtze in Arunachal Pradesh and Ghatibagarh-Lipulekh in Uttarakhand state. Delhi has additionally endorsed nine key rail lines - including the Missamari-Tenga-Tawang and the Bilaspur-Mandi-Manali-Leh projects. These run along the fringe with China and would permit the Indian military to convey substantial artillery into position. Regarding aeronautics, India has around 25 runways along the LAC but its main spotlight has been on growing its system of Advanced Landing Grounds (ALGs). Sukhoi-30 fighter planes and Chetak helicopters are conveyed at Chabua - a key Indian Air Force base situated in the territory of Assam, along the eastern area of the outskirt with China. That base has been as of late revamped and modernized. In 2018, India reported that it would modernize eight existing ALGs and furthermore create seven new ones near the outskirt. 
 
Concurrently, unlike India's focus on infrastructure building along the border emerged recently over the past 10 years, China's started as early as 1950. From the beginning, Beijing's way to deal with overland foundation has been vigorous, even forceful, and framed an essential aspect of its Tibet system. Beijing required streets and railroad lines to attest and combine power over Tibet. So focal was street working to Beijing's Tibet methodology that “road construction was treated as combat”. Roads connecting Xinjiang, Qinghai, Sichuan and Yunnan with Tibet were worked at incredible human expense and despite seemingly insurmountable opposition, and sought after with assurance as they encouraged the movement of troops to Tibet to suppress turmoil. Economic improvement of Tibet was another need, and railroad lines and oil pipelines were constructed to fulfil this demand. Indian initiatives like Bharatmala, which focuses on road development and connectivity, are a welcome step that requires more driven efforts in the post-Galwan order. Amongst Bharatmala's project categories, a ‘border road and international connectivity' centered sub-focus allows for construction of 2,000 kms of roads which under initiatives like “Aatmanirbhar Bharat” has received renewed focus.
 
China's infrastructure development over the past few decades along in the region has expanded its borders not just with India but with Nepal and Bhutan as well. For instance, the Golmund-Lhasa railway line of 2006 –and later connected with Xigaze in 2014 –is now being extended to a land port along the Nepal border named Gyirong and to a trading center near Nathu-La named Yadong which connects Tibet to India's Sikkim. The same may also be extended into Nyingchi (north of Arunachal Pradesh) and further to Dali in Yunnan. Meanwhile, the Lhasa-Nyingchi-Dali rail which runs parallel and in proximity to the McMahon Line, will allow easy deployment.
The expansion of Chinese infrastructure in the Himalayas, while being driven by strategic and military goals, also furthers China's influence in the domestic economies and politics of its South Asian counterparts. 
 
Nepal-China linkage with roads provides Nepal options to limit dependency on India and trade via India; this has led to deeper Nepal-China synergy and a potential for the Xigaze-Gyirong railway line to expand to Kathmandu, which China has also proposed can go up to the borders of Bihar. It is important to note that China's improve infrastructure in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) and LAC has added high value to the PLA. India, on the other hand, has limited counter-deployment capacities due to its late approach to building overland transport infrastructure. This can be seen by analyzing the fact that China's border roads run up-to the LAC (sometimes even crossing the line in the instance of the Siri Jap region in Ladakh which runs 5 kms into India). Meanwhile, Indian border roads end way before the LAC, even 50 kms before at times. 
 
At China's 2020 annual plenary sessions –which took place in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic in May –interestingly saw no mention of India or the tensions along the LAC. However, the dismissal of four highly decorated PLA officers, citing “serious violations of Party discipline”, showed that Xi, as commander-in-chief of the PLA, is continuing to monitor it extremely closely. India's increased momentum in border construction tactically threatens China's aspirations. Furthermore, with both countries having global ambitions, their regional tussle is beginning to take on an added competitive edge. India's increasingly growing ties with Quad partners, ASEAN nations and progress resulting from an action-driven ‘Act East Policy' have further strengthened China's resolve to proceed with assertiveness in order to unilaterally alter the status-quo. In the post-COVID and post-Galwan emerging order between New Delhi and Beijing, neither side is looking to back down. This can be seen in the slow and limited progress between de-escalation brigadier level talks China and India are engaged in at present, as well as their ‘blame-game' interaction during the 2020 Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) defence ministers summit. Moving forward with strategic caution and long-term goals in mind is the need of the hour.
 
Dr. Jagannath Panda is a Research Fellow and Centre Coordinator for East Asia at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Dr. Panda is the Series Editor for “Routledge Studies on Think Asia”. 
 
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