As the snow melts, the LAC simmers

The two-pronged military threat from China and Pakistan has become exigent for India

Indian Army deployed along the Line of Actual Control (LAC)
Indian Army deployed along the Line of Actual Control (LAC)

Sarosh Bana

The Line of Actual Control (LAC) is tense once again, all 3,488 kilometre of it. The surge of an additional 10,000 Indian troops along the Himalayan border between India and China is one reason for Beijing to bristle. The other is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s inauguration of the Sela Tunnel in the north-eastern border state of Arunachal Pradesh that China claims as its own.

The two nuclear-armed Asian powers have been on high alert ever since May 2020 when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops swept into Galwan Valley in eastern Ladakh in the western sector of the LAC.

A month later, Chinese soldiers fought Indian jawans with sticks, stones and clubs wrapped with barbed wire, killing 20 of ours and losing four of their own. (A bilateral agreement forbids the use of firearms along the border.)

Both sides are engaged in a menacing military build-up as they develop roads, bridges, tunnels, airfields and listening posts, and amass troops, battle tanks and artillery at their borders. Even during the harsh winters, when temperatures average between –15°⁰Celsius and –25°⁰Celsius, troops from each side hold fast.

The deployment of 10,000 additional jawans along the LAC in eastern Ladakh is part of the Indian Army’s effort to recalibrate its forces and firepower from the western borders—the Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan—to the northern frontier with China. The army is also seeking to ‘combatise’ some of its static formations currently involved in administration and training.

On 8 March 2024, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning told the media in Beijing that India’s moves were counterproductive to the bilateral effort to ease the situation at the border. The following day, China lodged a diplomatic protest over Modi’s visit to Arunachal to inaugurate the Rs 825 crore 8.6 km-long, twin-lane Sela Tunnel, located at an elevation of 13,000 ft.

China routinely censures visits of Indian leaders to Arunachal, which it calls Zangnan, or South Tibet. Since its annexation of Tibet in 1950, it has claimed the entire state of Arunachal, all 83,743 square kilometres of it. In turn, India lays claim to the 37,244 square kilometres of Aksai Chin, the high-altitude desert seized by China in 1962.

Acclaimed as the longest such twin-tunnel in the world, Sela Tunnel will connect Tawang in Arunachal to Tezpur, 334 kilometres away in the adjacent state of Assam, via the Balipara–Chariduar–Tawang Road.

Tawang, readers may remember, was where hundreds of Chinese and Indian forces had clashed in late 2022. The Indian Army’s IV Corps is based in Tezpur. In 2023, India built 90 infrastructure projects in the border areas worth over Rs 2,900 crore. These included the 500-metrelong Nechiphu Tunnel in Arunachal, two airfields and helipads, 22 roads and 63 bridges.

Twenty-eight other under-construction projects worth Rs 724 crore include 20 tunnels. In a statement issued last September, the defence ministry claimed to have ‘dedicated to the nation’ 295 border projects since 2021 at an overall cost of around Rs 8,000 crore.

In 2008 and 2009, India reopened the disused Fukche and Nyoma airfields in Ladakh. Seven such Advanced Landing Grounds (ALGs) were similarly upgraded in Arunachal, and two helipads were established in 2022 in eastern Ladakh. The Indian Army is also fortifying and expanding its rocket force, and has sought the development of ‘portable helipads’ that can streamline supplies in contested areas.

China’s Western Theatre Command, the largest of its five Theatre Commands, is responsible for responding to conflict with India. As many as 21 rounds of corps commander level negotiations have been held to date to de-escalate the situation in eastern Ladakh, but the PLA is yet to withdraw from the twin friction points of Depsang Plains and Demchok.

PLA detachments prevent Indian soldiers from patrolling the newly demarcated buffer zones while continuing to patrol their points as usual. The Indian side soon realised the real intention of the intrusions was to alter the status quo and draw new claim lines. While India accuses China of unprovoked infiltration, China perceives India’s infrastructure enlargement as encroaching on its territory.

In 2022, China deployed one border regiment, supported by two divisions of Xinjiang and Tibet Military Districts with four combined arms brigades (CABs) in reserve in the western LAC sector. Three light-to-medium CABs were additionally deployed in the eastern sector from other Theatre Commands and a further three CABs in the central LAC sector.

Although some elements of a light CAB subsequently withdrew, the majority of the deployed forces remain in place. One reason for China’s adventurism at the borders was India’s completion of the Darbuk–Shyok–Daulat Beg Oldie (DSDBO) road in 2020.

Two decades in the making, the 255 kilometre road traces the historic trade route from Leh to the Tarim Basin in Xinjiang, northwestern China, through the Karakoram Pass, traversing Darbuk at an altitude of 14,000 ft to reach Shyok, India’s last frontier village in the region.

Located at an attitude of over 16,000 ft, the DBO plateau, which bestrides Shyok and Karakoram, is India’s northernmost corner. Designated as Sub-Sector North, it holds the world’s highest airstrip, used by the Indian Air Force (IAF) to freight supplies.

The DSDBO carriageway is strategic for India, as it facilitates swifter deployment of troops to the border. The DBO lies just 7 kilometres south of Shenxianwan, considered the toughest PLA posting. China, in turn, has built a 36 kilometre road in the 5,163 sq. km. Shaksgam Valley that was illegally ceded to it by Pakistan in 1963 even while the territory was disputed by India. This helped China build the Karakoram Highway.

For India, what’s particularly galling is China’s plan for a railway line that will run close to the LAC along the Chinese national highway G-219 through Aksai Chin to enable faster deployment of the PLA. Plans released a year ago by the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) authorities speak of almost tripling the TAR rail network from the current 1,400 kilometres to 4,000 kilometres by 2025.

In 2022, China built new roads in all three sectors of the LAC, a second bridge over Pangong Tso, a dual-purpose airport near the central sector and multiple helipads, as well as new villages in neighbouring Bhutan and underground storage facilities near Doklam, at the China–Bhutan–India trijunction. The PLA’s attempt in 2017 to construct a high-mountain road in Doklam had caused a 70-day standoff between Indian and Chinese troops.

Doklam, called Donglang by China, is claimed by both Bhutan and China. Pakistan has also exploited India’s predicament with China by mobilising two of its army divisions—over 20,000 soldiers— along the LoC and Gilgit-Baltistan that Pakistan occupies but India considers part of Ladakh. This administrative territory borders the Kargil district where deep intrusions by Pakistani forces had sparked war with India in 1999.

In overt collaboration with China against India, Pakistan made available its forward air bases in Skardu and Gilgit to the PLAAF (People’s Liberation Army Air Force). These airfields can enable Chinese warplanes to reach India far quicker than from the PLAAF airbases at Hotan and Kashgar in Xinjiang, and at Gonggar/ Kongka Dzong, Hoping and Gargunsa in Tibet.

The two-pronged military threat from China and Pakistan has become exigent for India. As the borders simmer, New Delhi’s responses will ultimately determine its standing in the global community and its alliance positions.

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