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Digging the Tank Dens
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Claude Arpi | Date:03 May , 2023 0 Comments
Claude Arpi
Writes regularly on Tibet, China, India and Indo-French relations. He is the author of 1962 and the McMahon Line Saga, Tibet: The Lost Frontier and Dharamshala and Beijing: the negotiations that never were.

In the recent times, the Chinese social media has been agog with ‘tank dens’ being built by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Tibet; one article speaks of “fully underground design, to prevent Indian troops from starting artillery sneak attack.”

In December 2022, the site mentioned: “India always wants to act tougher with China in order to please the United States; it is the root cause of disputes on the Sino-Indian border and in the border areas.”

This is forgetting that the ‘dispute’ started at the end of the 1950s, at a time India was close to the Soviet Union.

The article affirmed: “The PLA is far better prepared for war than the Indians could imagine, and recently, India has even discovered an unexpected situation. This will not only effectively protect against Indian bombardment, but also provide a fairly good environment for the equipment.”

Of course, this can be seen as part of the Information Warfare (IW) waged against India, but it can’t be fully ignored.

The article mentioned some Chinese PLA 96A tanks hidden in ‘tank dens’ near the Indian border (probably in the Chumbi Valley between Sikkim and Bhutan).

Old Habits Die Hard

There is nothing new in the Chinese mania to ‘dig’, except that the PLA’s technology is today far ahead of what it was decades ago.

Nearly 30 years ago, I had the opportunity to interview several senior Tibetan officials who accompanied the Dalai Lama in exile in 1959.

One of them was Rinchen Sadutshang, who as a young translator accompanied the Tibetan delegation who signed a 17-Point Agreement with China in Beijing in 1951; later he served as the Dalai Lama’s representative in Delhi.

When asked whether the Chinese had massive deployment of troops in Southern Tibet at the end of 1950s (for example in places like Tsona, north of Tawang), Sadutshang replied: “Oh yes, all over the place. Wherever the PLA went, they were very secretive. …They were always stationed in mountains and they dug tunnels and tunnels and tunnels.”

This surprised me greatly.

Later, I asked him again about the tunnels; for example, was the local population involved? Sadutshang recounted: “They did not allow the local population [to come nearby]. All aspects of military operations were top secret. Very few civilians were involved, maybe one or two who were indispensable. It was people that either were completely trusted or some after being used, were eliminated. It was so secret, and all the [PLA] movements were happening at night, never during the day. [Tibetan] people could only report: ‘we heard a lot of vehicles moving, a lot trucks moving, it must be the army’; they had not seen them.”

The Tibetan official continued: “…Even in Yatung, they used to be a lot of Chinese military forces there, all inside tunnels, they dug the mountains, huge tunnels, [they were] like mice living under the ground. Exactly the same as mice, you do not see them from outside and they are so well guarded, they do not allow anybody to go 10 km from the entrance as all roads were blocked.”

I had forgotten about this interview until I recently came across the ‘tank dens’.

The Underground City

Some other historical cases are well-known; during the Cold War, a bomb shelter consisting of a network of tunnels existed beneath Beijing, the Chinese capital. Some observers spoke of the ‘Underground Great Wall’, it was built for military purposes.

The complex was constructed from 1969 to 1979 in anticipation of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union as the Sino-Soviet relations had worsened.

It is Mao Zedong who ordered the construction of the Underground City.

The complex was designed to withstand nuclear, biochemical and conventional attacks. The averred purpose was to protect Beijing’s population, and allow government officials to leave in the event of an attack on the capital.

Lying some 18 metres underground, the ‘dark, damp, and genuinely eerie’ tunnels covered an area of 85 square kilometers: “At one time there were about 90 entrances to the complex, all of which were hidden in shops along the main streets of Qianmen,” says the online encyclopedia Wikipedia.

The complex had facilities such as restaurants, clinics, schools, theaters, factories, a roller skating rink, grain and oil warehouses, and a mushroom cultivation farm. It was built by more than 300,000 local workers, including ‘volunteer’ school students.

There were also almost 70 potential sites where water wells could easily be dug if required. To this add elaborate ventilation systems with 2,300 shafts that could be sealed off to protect the tunnels’ inhabitants from poison gases. All contingencies had been taken into consideration.

Many believe that the tunnels linked important governmental buildings such as Zhongnanhai, the Great Hall of the People, and even PLA bases in the outskirts of the city; the rumour was that every senior official’s residence had a secret trapdoor leading to the tunnels.

Project 131

Another grandiose scheme was Project 131, located in the town of Gaoqiao of the Xian’an District of the Xianning prefecture-level city in Hubei Province. It was located some 80 km south of Wuhan.

The origin of the Project is also the split with the Soviet Union. On January 31, 1969, the decision was taken to build an underground command headquarters for the PLA (the name derives the date of the decision or 1-31). The Chief of Staff of the PLA’s General Staff Department, Gen Huang Yongsheng was responsible for the construction.

In 1955, Huang had risen through the 1950s and 1960s, and during the Cultural Revolution he became close to Lin Biao, the Defence Minister.

The tunnels, which had meeting rooms, offices for the top commanders, were constructed under the nearby hills; luxurious villas for Mao Zedong and his heir apparent Lin Biao were also built but over the ground.

After the latter’s dramatic escape and his subsequent death, Huang was purged due to his close association with the defence minister; the project was stopped and Mao and his cronies never used the facilities.

The ‘Tank Dens’

Now, it appears that the PLA has built semi-underground as well as fully underground fortifications and military bases along the Tibet-India border.

The article quoted above said: “In recent reports, the PLA’s plateau underground fortifications have been revealed and although not many specific [details about the] plateau underground fortifications have become public, there are enough to show the existence of a number of them, including a rare Chinese ‘tank fortress’; it can also be called a staging area for tanks and troops. A hundred tanks as well as other armoured vehicles and a large number of PLA troops are already stationed directly in this semi-underground fortification.”

The site added: “the PLA plateau bases are now fully underground facilities, and though the amount of work is very important, it has the advantage of good protection for the equipment and it greatly improves the living conditions of the [army] personnel. More importantly, it can provide good protection against sneak attacks by Indian troops using artillery. Due to the very large range of modern weaponry, the problem of facing a surprise attack must be considered even at a distance of several dozen of kilometres from the front line.”

The article further rationales: “It is not possible to rule out the possibility of a surprise attack by the Indians, [for example] a sudden and massive artillery attack. The PLA should then be prepared with a large number of armoured vehicles [tanks] to ensure that our forces are not destroyed by the Indian army, after all, we can’t afford to have a defensive [position] only.”

Whether all these details are confirmed in their entirety or not, it should be a serious warning for India.

The Border Situation

In this context, it was interesting to see that Defence Minister Rajnath Singh recently stood firm on India’s position when he met his Chinese counterpart General Li Shangfu. Held on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) defence ministers’ meeting in Delhi, the Indian Minister is said to have used plain words to characterize the recent developments in the India-China border. A statement said: “Rajnath Singh categorically conveyed that development of relations between India and China is premised on the prevalence of peace and tranquility at the borders …. He reiterated that violation of existing agreements has eroded the entire basis of bilateral relations and disengagement at the border will logically be followed with de-escalation.”

Undoubtedly, China is getting ready for a long haul; the ‘tank dens’ should be seen in this perspective.


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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

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