China’s Infrastructure development in the light of Doklam Stand-off
Chinese and Indian soldiers have been locked in a stand-off in the Doklam area of Sikkim sector for over a month after Indian troops stopped the Chinese army from building a road in the disputed area. New Delhi has expressed concern over the road building, apprehending that it may allow Chinese troops to cut India’s access to its northeastern states. Of the 3,488-km-long India-China border from Jammu and Kashmir to Arunachal Pradesh, a 220-km section falls in Sikkim.
China formed five new theater commands namely Eastern Theater Command, Southern Theater Command, Western Theater Command, Northern Theater Command, and Central Theatre Command last year, 2016. As the tension between the two neighboring countries, which engaged in a war in 1962 over a border dispute, continues, the Western Theater Command (WTC) was formed keeping India in mind. General Zhao Zongqi is the commander of the Western Theatre Command who has around one-third of the 2.26-million strong Chinese military under his command since February 2016.[i]
The Western Theater Command (WTC) is the largest theater and has complex terrain including desert and high mountains, long borders, and challenging social conditions.[ii]
The Western Theater has to look after the erstwhile territory of the Lanzhou and Chengdu Military Regions spread over the 4,057-km Boundary cum Line of Actual Control (LAC) with India. Apart from India from the West the WTC in the South looks after the border with Afghanistan, Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK), India, Nepal, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. The WTC incorporates the provinces of Sichuan, Gansu, Guizhou, Yunnan, Qinghai, Chongqing municipality and the two largest and most remote regions of Xinjiang and Tibet.[iii]
The WTC is responsible for the unresolved borders with India and Bhutan and also responsible for the volatile region of China, Xinjiang.
China has developed a network of internal highways and feeder roads in TAR to connect all strategic and important places on the borders with India, Nepal, Bhutan and Pakistan by motorable roads.[iv]
The Chinese government has started a large-scale effort to upgrade air, roads and rail infrastructure, as well as surveillance capabilities, in its Tibet and Xinjiang regions. China has built 15 fully-operational airbases, an extensive railway network and over 58,000 km of roads in TAR.
Roads and Highways:
Central Highway: It runs from Xining in Qinghai to Lhasa in Tibet. The 2,122-km highway carries more than 80 percent of cargo and 90 percent of passengers into or out of Tibet.
Western Highway: Connects Xinjiang to Tibet, by linking Kashgar and Lhasa (3,105 km).
Eastern Highway: This highway between Chengdu (Sichuan) and Linzhi (Ngiti) is 1,715 km long (2,413 km up to Lhasa). There has been a crucial upgradation of the 400-km stretch from Lhasa to Ngiti (opposite central Arunachal Pradesh).
Yunnan-Tibet Highway: This highway holds special significance in military terms for India, owing to the build-up of the PLA opposite India’s eastern theatre, given China’s logistics capacity-building and accelerated facilitation of men and material in the critical sectors of the northern and eastern borders.[v]
There are five major airports and fifteen airbases in Tibet which can be used against India. Some of the airbases are Gongar, Hoping, Pangta, Linchi and Gar Gunsa. The Gongga and Pangta airfields are being upgraded to 1.1million and 1.0 million transients respectively. The construction of the Nyingtri airport (Linzhi) which is located near Nyingtri in Nyingchi Perfecture shares borders with India and Myanmar.[vi]
Construction of new airfields and the upgradation of Advanced Landing Grounds (ALGs) and helipads in and around the TAR are likely to enhance China’s strategic airlift capability.[vii]
The 1,142-km Qinghai-Tibet Railway (QTR) line from Golmud in Qinghai province to Lhasa in Tibet gives china the capacity to mobilize up to 12 divisions in a month’s time frame. It also enables it to transfer telecommunications and other command and control facilities which are needed to deploy missiles from launches at a chosen place. The QTR reduces the mobilization time for PLA formation from Golmud to Lhasa from approximately 72 hours to merely 16 hours.[viii]
The Lhasa-Shigatse line will extend over 253 km, carrying trains at 120 km per hour through valleys and over three bridges that run across the Brahmaputra river, or Yarlung Zangbo as it is known in China. The rail network will boost China’s mobilisation capabilities in remote Tibetan areas.[ix]
In addition to Lhasa-Xigase extension, the other proposed extension is from Lhasa to Nyingchi (Kongpo) in the southeastern part of Tibet along the Yarlung Tsangpo river (rahmaputra).[x]
According to media reports construction of the railway from Lhasa to Nyingchi is in process. The Chinese are proposing another rail link, which could revolutionize contact between TAR and India. Mr. Ji of the DRC revealed that the Chinese government is considering extending the Lhasa-Shigatse rail link to Yadong. In case that happens, it would establish a Chinese railhead in the Chumbi valley, only 31 kilometres away from the Nathu La pass that connects Tibet with Sikkim.[xi]
Fibre Optic Communication (FOC) and Logistic Installations:
China is also reported to have laid a fibre optic network in all the 55 counties, which includes Ali, and the border area of Chamdo; additionally, 1,100 km of optical fibre cable (OFC) have been laid, connecting Lhasa with Nyingchi and Qamdo Counties in east TAR. Another major development has been the interconnecting of Chengdu and Lanzhou MRs with one another, and both these MRs to Beijing, through secure communications, thus, ensuring secure and real-time communication, also emphasised during training. All military supply depots (MSDs) are connected to Lhasa by radio and OFC.[xii]
The total number of fixed telephones in the TAR has now reached 1,50,000 with a mobile phone capacity of 85 channels. China will invest heavily in information infrastructure in the next three years to help develop the new economy and sustain growth.
TAR’s biggest logistic centre by China is located in Nagqu Township of Naqgu Country in northern Tibet, next to a railway station at an altitude of 4,500 meters, and is expected to handle 3.1 million tonnes by 2030.[xiii]`
China is rapidly improving infrastructure in the Sino-Indian border region as part of development plans for Tibet as well as prepare for possible defensive or offensive operations.[xiv] China has constructed roads along the disputed areas, built airbases and logistics sites that will facilitate easy deployment of its military and operations in the difficult terrain if war breaks out. India too has improved infrastructure on its side of the border and deployed additional military forces.[xv]
China doesn’t deploy as many soldiers directly on the LAC but can, instead, use its massive railway infrastructure to bring in additional troops. Despite the tension between India and China, this has not happened. The Indian Air Force has 22 airfields and is developing a network of smaller air landing grounds in the Eastern sector. The Chinese air force has 15 air bases and 27 smaller airstrips but operates at a significant disadvantage vis-a-vis the Indian Air Force. This is because all of Chinese bases in the region are located high in the Tibetan plateau which makes it impossible for the jets to take off with a full weapon load because of the rarified atmosphere. The Indian Air Force, on the other hand, does not face any such constraints. All its major bases in the region are located in the plains and IAF fighters can take off with a full fuel and weapons load, a significant operating advantage in the event of a conflict between the two countries. In the current stand-off between both the countries, China cannot make any significant inroads with the present number of soldiers it has deployed in the region and would need to bring in soldiers from elsewhere, a move that would give Indian military planners a clear indicator of a potential attack. [xvi]
[i] Chinese General responsible for standoff visited India, assured of good relations 4 months back: http://www.oneindia.com/international/chinese-general-responsible-for-standoff-visited-india-assured-of-good-relations
[ii]Snapshot: China’s Western Theater Command: https://jamestown.org/program/snapshot-chinas-western-theater-command/
[iv] Infrastructure Development and Chinese War Waging Capabilities in Tibet: http://www.idsa.in/system/files/5_3_ShailenderArya.pdf
[v] Infrastructure Development in Tibet Evaluating Trendlines: http://www.claws.in/images/publication_pdf/1317312941MP%2032%20inside.pdf
[vii] China’s Infrastructure Development in Tibet Evaluating Trendlines: http://www.claws.in/images/publication_pdf/1317312941MP%2032%20inside.pdf
[ix] China to extend Tibet rail to town near Nepal border: http://www.thehindu.com/news/international/world/china-to-extend-tibet-rail-to-town-near-nepal-border/article5757520.ece
[x] Chinese Policy Towards Russia and the Central Asian Republics: http://www.rand.org/dam/rand/pubs/monograph_reports/2007/MR1045.pdf
[xi] Integrating Tibet with the world: http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/sichuantibet-railway-project-integrating-tibet-with-the-world/article7414017.ece
[xii] Supranote 7
[xiv] Supranote 3
[xv] Border standoff: China moulded its Western Theater Command keeping India in mind: http://www.ibtimes.co.in/borderline-aggro-china-moulded-its-western-theater-command-keeping-india-mind-733808
[xvi] How To Read China’s Rhetoric And Military Drills Amid Sikkim Standoff: http://www.ndtv.com/india-news/for-all-its-recent-aggression-china-activity-along-border-is-routine-1726811