Military Buildup Across the Himalayas: A Shaky Balance

Publication: China Brief Volume: 9 Issue: 18
September 10, 2009 04:19 PM Age: 5 yrs
Category: China Brief, Military/Security, China and the Asia-Pacific, South Asia, Home Page

Chinese and Indian border guards

In less than one year, China and India will celebrate six decades of bilateral relations capped by festivities in their respective country. This period, however, has been marked by a border war in 1962 that precipitated a long phase of antagonism and hostility between the two sides. Yet, there were several positive trends in their bilateral relations since the late 1980s that buoy the decline in mutual trust: regular high level political interactions; increasing bilateral trade that may reach $60 billion in 2010; boundary demarcation talks since 2003; and joint military exercises, which included two ‘anti terror’ exercises in 2007 and 2008. Most recently, during border talks in August in New Delhi, the two sides agreed to ‘seek a political solution’ to the boundary problems and work towards ‘safeguarding the peace and calmness in the areas along the border’ (Xinhua News Agency, August 6).

Notwithstanding these positive trends, the two Asian powers still suffer from a trust deficit and are increasingly concerned about each other's strategic intent, particularly over their respective military developments across the Himalayas. The Chinese side has specifically warned India of its ‘military initiatives’ in Arunachal Pradesh, a northeastern state of India that includes Tawang—home to one of Tibetan Buddhism’s most sacred monasteries—and claimed by Beijing (Asia Times, July 10), and New Delhi has raised the specter of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) ‘systematic upgrading of infrastructure, reconnaissance and surveillance, quick response and operational capabilities in the border areas’ (Indian Express, July 12). Besides border intrusion, incursions, air space violation and even on one occasion an ambush by PLA soldiers (Tibetanreview.net, August 11) are causing immense concern to the Indian army. In 2008, there were reportedly “270 border violations and nearly 2,300 instances of ‘aggressive border patrolling’ by Chinese soldiers” (New York Times, September 4). Although leaders on both sides try to downplay the border sparring, there is ample evidence pointing to the further augmentation of defense forces and military infrastructure along the border. This could be the harbinger of a spiraling arms race.
 
Geographical Determinants

Geography is an important factor in the military infrastructure developments along the India-China border. A large part of China’s border lies along the flat Tibetan plateau, which gives China the advantages of higher operational and logistical capability for strategic planning during a military contingency. These favorable geographical settings allowed China to build an extensive network of roads, railheads, forward airfields, pipelines and logistic hubs that appear geared toward supporting military operations. Moreover, China is reportedly deploying intercontinental missiles such as the DF-31 and DF-31A at Delingha, north of Tibet, which can strike targets in northern India (Asia Times, July 9).

Unlike China, Indian troops are deployed on high mountains and have to negotiate a tougher terrain comprising of snow capped peaks, deep valleys, thick jungles and difficult mountain passes. Some of the Indian army posts can be accessed only during favorable weather conditions by animal transport and human porters [1]. Furthermore, a number of forward posts can only be serviced by helicopters for troop induction, logistics support and casualty evacuation. In essence, China enjoys geographical advantage and has built a sophisticated logistic network for conducting offensive operations against India.
 
Military Infrastructure

China has established a long distance rail link between Beijing and Lhasa and this service would later be extended to Xigaze, South of Lhasa, and then to Yatung, near Nathu La passes [2]. Further, Lhasa would be connected to Nyingchi, just north of Arunachal Pradesh, and the rail network would then run along the Brahmaputra River and the Sino-Indian border to Kunming in Yunnan. The rail project, when complete, would be a technological marvel, but it will be useful to keep in mind that it is being developed on the Tibetan plateau, and thus can provide China with a strategic advantage by enhancing the PLA’s logistic supply chain.

Furthermore, the Chinese authorities have announced plans to widen the Karakoram Highway, which links China to Pakistan, from the existing 10 meters width to 30 meters to allow heavier vehicles to pass throughout the year. According to an Indian military analyst, China has deployed “13 Border Defence Regiments, the 52 Mountain Infantry Brigade to protect Southern Qinghai-Tibet region, the 53 Mountain Infantry Brigade to protect the high plateau in the Western sector, the 149th Division of the 13th Group Army in the Eastern Sector and the 61st Division of the 21st Group Army in the Western Sector” [3]. This is a substantial military concentration, which can provide a forceful initial response in case of a breakout of hostilities across the Himalayas.

Similarly, the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) has established airfields at Hoping, Pangta and Kong Ka, two airfields at Lhasa and an additional four in the region that can be rapidly operationalized [4]. Beyond just supporting fighter aircraft, these air bases have enhanced PLA airlift capability that includes division strength of troops (20,000), air-drop a brigade (3,500 troops) and helicopter lift of approximately two battalions. These figures are for a single lift [5].

In mid-August 2009, the PLA commenced a major military exercise that would be conducted over two months. The war game code named ‘Stride-2009’ (Kuayue-2009) involves nearly 50,000 troops drawn from the military regions of Shenyang, Lanzhou, Jinan and Guangzhou, who would conduct operations over long distances. Significantly, one of the primary aims of the exercises is to test the PLA’s ‘capacity of long-range projection’ (Xinhua News Agency, August 11). The exercise would also marshal civilian assets such as high-speed trains traveling up to 350 kilometers per hour and commercial aircraft to move troops over long distances (China Daily [Beijing], August 12). According to Ni Lexiong,  a military analyst at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, “This is really about a rapid response to sudden events in Tibet and Xinjiang, but also the military will play an increasing role in moving supplies and responding to disasters” (Startribune.com [Canada], August 11).

China's sprawling military infrastructure provides the PLA with a strong logistic back up, which enables the rapid deployment of troops and a robust offensive capability. India, on the other hand, is constrained by geography. In June 2009, General J.J. Singh, the governor of Arunachal Pradesh and former chief of the Indian Army stated, “Two army divisions comprising 25,000 to 30,000 soldiers each will be deployed along the border in Arunachal’ and “[deployment] was part of the planned augmentation of our capabilities to defend the country ... The increase in force strength is to meet the future national security challenge” (Reuters, June 8). These two divisions are specially trained in mountain warfare and would augment the number of Indian troops to 120,000 (Stratpost.com, June 8).

Soon thereafter, in July 2009, the Indian Air Force (IAF) announced that it had planned to forward-deploy two squadrons (18 aircraft each) of Su-30 MKI advanced fighter jets at its airbase in Tezpur (150 kilometers south of the Chinese border) in Arunachal Pradesh. According to the IAF chief, “We have plans to improve infrastructure in the north-east. We’re upgrading four-five airfields and Advanced Landing Grounds (ALG). We’re also going to be basing a fleet of Sukhoi-30s in Tezpur in addition to the existing MiG 21s fighter jets” (Stratpost.com, July 21). The ALGs are strategically located at Daulat Beg Oldie and in Chushul on the border with Aksai Chin in the proximity of Karakoram Highway. In addition, the IAF has plans to position Su-30 MKIs at Chabua and Jorhat in Assam, Panagarh in West Bengal and Purnea in Bihar (Sifynews.com, July 10).

Interestingly, there is a maritime dimension to the military developments in the Himalayas. Located at an altitude of 14,500 feet, the Pangong Lake is under the control of both China (90 kilometers) and India (45 kilometers), but a stretch of about 5 km is disputed (Indian Express, October 6, 2008). Both sides have positioned patrol vessels and conduct routine surveillance. There have been regular incidents of transgression and incursions but both sides have exercised restraint and adopted a standard drill that helps disengagement; when boats from both sides come face to face with each other, they raise flags and shout ‘hindi chini bhai bhai’ (Indian and Chinese are brothers) and disengage. China operates 22 boats manned by 5-7 personnel each and India has deployed 2 large boats operated by 21 personnel each. In 2008, the Indian navy chief had visited the lake and India has plans to augment its capability by deploying more boats in the lake (Indian Express, October 7, 2008).

The Indian Ministry of Defense Report 2008-2009 has expressed concerns over China’s military capabilities and observed that ‘greater transparency and openness’ is critical but on a conciliatory note also stated that  India will ‘engage China, while taking all necessary measures to protect its national security, territorial integrity and sovereignty’ (Indian Express, July 12). There are fears in India about China’s military modernization and augmentation of military infrastructure along the borders. China has been increasing its defense budget on a regular basis and in 2009 it announced a  14.9 percent rise in military spending to 480.6 billion renminbi ($70.3 billion) marking 21 years of double-digit growth (Defence.pk, March 4). Yet, unofficial estimates place the total amount much higher than the figures the Chinese government claims.

The Indian military leadership has expressed concern about the growing military power potential of China. Admiral Sureesh Mehta, chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, categorically stated that “In military terms, both conventionally and unconventionally, we can neither have the capability nor the intention to match China force for force …” but cautioned that as China consolidates itself and builds its comprehensive national power and a powerful military, it is “likely to be more assertive on its claims, especially in the immediate neighborhood [sic].” Further, “It is quite evident that coping with China will certainly be one of our [India] primary challenges in the years ahead. Our trust deficit with China can never be liquidated unless our boundary problems are resolved” (Zeenews.com, August 10).

In the 21st Century, China and India have emerged as major Asian powers and are engaged in building their respective strengths. The current trends in their bilateral political and economic relations augers well for Asian prosperity. Yet, the slow pace of talks on demarcation and delineation of the boundary (commenced in 2003), military infrastructure developments along the border, are some of the issues that remain uppermost in the minds of Indian planners and strategic analysts. The boundary dispute gains greater salience given the fact that China has resolved its boundary disputes with most of its neighbors, while its dispute with India remains unresolved. It is fair to argue that China is biding time to build its comprehensive national power including military capability reflected in Deng Xiaoping’s thought “tao guang yang hui," which literally translates as "hide brightness, nourish obscurity," and in Beijing’s interpretation, "Bide our time and build up our capabilities" and then challenge India at the time of its choosing.

Notes

1. Author's discussions with retired Indian army officers in August 2009.
2. Shailender Arya, “The Train to Lhasa’ Journal of Defence Studies, winter 2008.
3. Rajan, D.S. 2009. ‘China: Media Anger on Arunachal Pradesh Continues Unabated’, SAAG Paper No.  3260, June 18, 2009.
4. Arun Sehgal, “Military Moves and Reactions: The PLA’s Profile in Tibet is Increasing in Strength and Sophistication”, Pragati: The Indian National Interest Review, No 28, July 2009, pp.15-18.
5. Ibid.


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