In January, we had occasion to refer to an article in the South China Morning Post by Senior Colonel Zhou Bo, an influential officer of the PLA Academy of Military Science, who often comments on international issues.
He warned that the Doklam incident in 2017 in the India-China-Bhutan tri-junction area could be a turning point on the issue of peace and stability along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China.
He added that it had already “provided China with a lesson on reconsidering its security concerns.” And as a result, “China will most probably enhance its infrastructure construction along the border.” India would respond, but given its robust economy, it would not be able to match the “speed and scale” of the Chinese actions, the Senior Colonel noted.
That future seems to have already arrived. Reports from Doklam suggest that not only is the People’s Liberation Army firmly entrenched in the area where the standoff occurred, within territory that India and Bhutan believe belongs to the latter, but it is now building a road to bypass the point of last year’s blockade, which was just 100 meters or so from the Indian post at Doka La.
The new road, 5-6 kilometers to the east and deeper in the Doklam region, would not be amenable to the type of blockade India placed last year. It would require a full-fledged Indian military operation to disrupt the road construction, something that is obviously a fraught prospect, not only because Indian forces can only legitimately intervene there at the invitation of Bhutan. There is nothing to indicate that such an invitation would be forthcoming.
A Chinese road, and the possible occupation of all of the Doklam Plateau including the Jampheri ridge, will give the PLA an overview of India’s strategic Siliguri Corridor. The Indian Army, which is strongly entrenched in the corridor and in Sikkim, views such an occupation as a dangerous development.
But Doklam is not the only region where the Chinese have stepped up their activity. India is now detecting an enhanced interest by the Chinese in developing their Tibetan infrastructure.
Readiness in Himalaya region
In the past two decades, Beijing had strengthened its communication network, focusing on rail lines and roads and barracks and settlements along them. The Chinese deployment in Tibet has been quite light, and its emphasis has been on the ability to pump forces in rapidly, in the event of conflict. Now, however, they seem to have concluded, in common with India, that the kind of politico-military crises that occur in the Himalayas may require the presence of significant forces on hand. So now there is a distinct uptick in the construction of residential and other infrastructure along the length of the LAC as well.
The most recent developments seem to be the improvement in the infrastructure to support the PLA Air Force for both fighter and helicopter operations, as well as an emphasis on training the forces to operate at high altitudes. The PLAAF has routinely rotated fighters through Tibet and Xinjiang in the past and has actually based some of its J-11 and J-10 fighters in the area. It also routinely uses its airlift capability based on its Il-76, Yun-20 and Y-9 aircraft. In addition, it deploys helicopters such as the Mi-17 and Mi-171 Hip for transportation and for combat.
The Doklam standoff has seen the numbers and quality of aircraft increase. In January, there were reports that the Chinese had sent their advanced fifth-generation stealth fighter, the J-20, for a training exercise in Tibet. We may soon see other signs of a stronger military presence such as air defense systems and a further upgrading of the airfields across Tibet.
But Doklam is only part of the reason for the current developments. The Chinese actions preceded that event and were actually a response to an Indian buildup.
An analysis of satellite imagery of the Lhasa Gonggar, the PLAAF’s main base in Tibet, has shown that here there were four or five J-10s or J-11s since 2010, they had gone up to eight by the end of 2014, and during the Doklam standoff there were 16 J-11s on the airfield.
Another major airbase is at Hotan in Xinjiang, proximate to the disputed Aksai Chin area. Here too the PLAAF rotates anywhere between eight to 16 aircraft every year, and the base here has seen surges involving the J-11 and the Q-5 ground attack fighters.
In the period after 2008, with its economy doing well, India began an extensive strengthening of its defenses on the border with China. This included an acceleration of the road-building program, reactivating seven advanced landing grounds in Arunachal Pradesh state, and deploying the advanced Sukhoi Su-30MKI to bases in Assam. In addition, two new divisions, two armored brigades and a Mountain Strike Corps were raised or authorized.
In Ladakh, authorization was given to establish a full-fledged fighter base at Nyoma in its southeastern corner and road construction began to link to Daulat Beg Oldi. Beijing’s response was to propose a freeze in construction on both sides of the LAC, something that New Delhi rejected outright considering the disadvantaged position that Indian forces were in the region in comparison with the PLA.
No doubt the Indian military is closely monitoring the developments in Tibet, and we are likely to see a further strengthening of the Indian posture facing the Himalaya. Recently there were reports that India had also moved some Su-30MKI aircraft to Hashimara air base, which is close to the Doklam area.
On the other hand, both sides are moving politically to defuse the situation. In February, Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale, who was earlier ambassador to China, carried out a low-key visit to Beijing and held talks with his Chinese counterparts. Subsequently, India has pointedly avoided using the Dalai Lama card and it canceled a major conference relating to China being hosted by the Ministry of Defense’s think-tank.
The new Chinese State Councilor Wang Yi noted at a recent interaction that the two sides must manage their differences and called for removing mistrust between the two sides. He added colorfully, ”The Chinese dragon and the Indian elephant must not fight each other but dance with each other.”