Digging in near the Dragon’s Perch: What explains the infrastructure build-up on both sides of the LAC?

While India cannot hope to stand up to the military might of a looming China, it is striving to bolster its border infrastructure in the Himalayan reaches to match that being created by China

Sela tunnel being constructed near Sela Pass
Sela tunnel being constructed near Sela Pass

Sarosh Bana

India’s defence minister Rajnath Singh inaugurated, in January, a strategic steel arch bridge over the Siyom river in Arunachal Pradesh, while simultaneously opening 27 other border infrastructure projects (albeit ‘virtually’), to be built at an estimated overall cost of Rs 724 crore.

All 28 projects, including 21 bridges and three roads, have been constructed by the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), with five of them in Arunachal Pradesh, eight in Ladakh, four in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), and three each in the other border states of Sikkim, Punjab and Uttarakhand, and two in Rajasthan.

While India cannot hope to stand up to the military might of a looming China, it is striving to bolster its border infrastructure in the Himalayan reaches to match that being created by China at the 3,488 km Line of Actual Control, the longest disputed border in the world that divides the two nuclear-armed neighbours.

The bridge that Singh inaugurated is 687 km from Yangtse in the Tawang Sector, where the last of a series of unprovoked transgressions on the LAC had taken place just days earlier (in December 2022), when a column of PLA troops had clashed with Indian jawans.

It was the first physical combat between the two sides since the deadly clash in June 2020 in the Union Territory of Ladakh, when 20 Indian jawans had been killed. A month before this skirmish, over 5,000 PLA troops had breached the LAC to overrun vast tracts of this region. They remain encamped at the two friction points, despite 17 military commander-level talks held to date to resolve the impasse.

Both countries have been feverishly developing border infrastructure in these high-altitude terrains where temperatures can plunge to minus 40 degree Celsius in winter, challenging both men and material. The projects are primarily to improve connectivity and enhance operational preparedness of their armed forces by facilitating deployment of troops, warplanes and drones, heavy equipment, mechanised infantry and vehicles to the forward areas.

India started developing border infrastructure in earnest around a decade ago, while China has honed high engineering skills to create superior multimodal infrastructure spanning integrated road and rail networks, airfields, communications and surveillance structures, and logistics installations.

Indian Army movement near the LAC
Indian Army movement near the LAC

“Chinese presence has increased in the northern sector in the recent past, and due to their proficiency in construction in mountainous areas, they manage to reach different places very quickly,” the defence minister had said while addressing BRO personnel on their 63rd raising day last May. The BRO executed 75 additional projects in 2022 alone. Twenty of these projects are in J&K, 18 each in Ladakh and Arunachal, five in Uttarakhand and the rest in Sikkim, West Bengal, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab and Rajasthan. They include 45 bridges, 27 roadways, two helipads and one carbon-neutral habitat.

Working day and night, the BRO built the 30 metre Siyom river bridge within eight months. It also constructed the 2.5 km Sela tunnel and 0.5 km Nechiphu tunnel at altitudes of above 13,000 feet.

The BRO had additionally constructed 102 infrastructure projects, comprising 87 bridges and 15 roads, in 2021, the most in a single year. India is estimated to have spent almost $2 billion on the construction of 2,088 km of border roads over the past five years.

The newly inaugurated, BRO-built steel arch bridge over the Siyom river in Arunachal Pradesh
The newly inaugurated, BRO-built steel arch bridge over the Siyom river in Arunachal Pradesh

India is challenged by China both militarily and in engineering technology. Besides the ambitious $1 trillion sequence of infrastructure projects spanning 70 countries that it calls Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Beijing has also operationalised the 1,142 km Qinghai-Tibet Railway (QTR) line at 13,000–16,000 feet high permafrost terrain. QTR connects Lhasa with Nyingchi, a Tibetan border town 17 km from Tuting in Arunachal.

China’s cross-border adventurism climaxed with India’s completion in 2020 of the strategic all-weather Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO) road that has enhanced connectivity along the 1,147 km LAC section in eastern Ladakh. The 255 km carriageway leads to the world’s highest airstrip and military base, the DBO Advanced Landing Ground, located at a height of 16,730 feet on the Indian side 12 km south of the strategic Karakoram pass and a mere 7 km south of Shenxianwan post, considered the toughest PLA posting in China.

China has also built a 36 km road in the 5,163 sq. km Shaksgam Valley that was ceded to it by Pakistan in 1963 when both countries signed an agreement to settle their border differences, even while the territory was disputed by India.

Construction at Zojila pass, the only road link between Kashmir and Ladakh
Construction at Zojila pass, the only road link between Kashmir and Ladakh

Karakoram pass lies north of the desert of Aksai Chin that China had appropriated in 1962, and which India still claims as part of Ladakh. The 1,300 km Karakoram highway, formally known as the China–Pakistan Friendship Highway, the world’s highest paved international road, connects Kashgar in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), with Pakistan’s capital Islamabad.

Pakistan has made available its forward air force bases in Skardu and Gilgit in Gilgit-Baltistan to the PLA Air Force (PLAAF). China has vastly upgraded these airfields that now enable its warplanes to access Indian airspace far more quickly than from the traditional PLAAF airbases at Hotan and Kashgar in XUAR, and at Gonggar/ Kongka Dzong, Hoping and Gargunsa in Tibet.

As part of its deception warfare at the LAC, China has been constructing “dual-use” villages and installations, and subsequently upgrading civilian settlements to military enclaves and converting civilian airfields into PLAAF bases. It has built as many as 628 ‘Xiaokang’ (well-off) model border defence villages, stretching from eastern Ladakh to Arunachal. While most of these villages are on the Chinese side, some are on disputed territory.

A menacing China is also opening up additional fronts along India’s border states of Uttarakhand and Sikkim. Its State-run English language daily Global Times affirmed in 2018: “Although China recognised India’s annexation of [7,096 sq. km] Sikkim in 2003, it can readjust its stance on the matter.”

In its recent report, ‘How Is China Expanding its Infrastructure to Project Power Along its Western Borders’, Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) notes that 37 airports and heliports have been newly constructed or upgraded within Tibet and Xinjiang since 2017. That year, China and India had a 73-day faceoff at the tri-border Doklam plateau of India, China and Bhutan. “The new facilities also fill large gaps along the Indian border where there were previously no airports,” reports CSIS. “If PLAAF units are based at these airports, China will gain several new nodes along the border from which to project airpower into India.”

India’s external affairs ministry too has confirmed that China has built a second bridge across Pangong Tso, the saltwater lake that straddles eastern Ladakh and Tibet at an elevation of 14,270 feet and which was a major friction point in the PLA’s push into the region. The earlier bridge was to logistically serve the second, which is wide and strong enough to carry armoured columns and which will reduce deployment time from the current 12 hours to four hours. The constructions were instigated by an Indian Army operation in August 2020 in which it had outmanoeuvred the PLA to occupy the neighbouring Kailash Range in the Chushul sub-sector and thereby dominate the strategically significant mountain pass of Spanggur Gap on the LAC that is the base for China’s ‘Moldo Garrison’.

The BRO is now constructing the new Nyoma ALG. This airbase is strategically important as it will facilitate quick reaction from the Indian Air Force (IAF), being closest to the LAC at a distance of less than 50 km. The IAF’s CH-47 Chinook heavy-lift helicopters and AH-64E Apache combat helicopters already operate at the base.

Three strategic railway lines are also being planned in north-east India that will help faster deployment of men and material. Conceived 12 years ago, the project is expected to be completed over the next decade and will introduce Arunachal, Sikkim and Manipur to the broad gauge. The network includes the 200 km Bhalukpong–Tawang section, the 87 km Silapathar–Along route and the 217 km Rupai–Pasighat link, Pasighat being one of the IAF’s seven ALGs in Arunachal Pradesh. The Indian railways is also contemplating a strategic 56 km broad gauge line between Sikkim’s capital Gangtok and Nathu La.

The Indian Army received deliveries last October of two of the four Heron TP multi-role MediumAltitude Long-Endurance (MALE) unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) it had ordered in 2020 from Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) for deployment along the LAC in eastern Ladakh for all-weather surveillance and reconnaissance missions.

IAI’s Heron Mk II drones are also being inducted for similar missions, with IAI having signed an agreement with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited for joint manufacture in India. Heron MK II can reach an altitude of 35,000 feet, a maximum speed of 150 knots and can remain airborne for 45 hours. All the drones will eventually be equipped with air-to-ground missiles and laser-guided munitions for precision strikes under ‘Project Cheetah’.

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