PLA Unit 77656 at India's Chumbi Gate
By honouring the PLA Unit closest to India’s vulnerable Siliguri Corridor, Beijing has responded to Delhi’s efforts to assert itself along the border through improved military presence and development of border areas.
Lord Curzon was a man in a hurry. In 1904, he decided to march to Lhasa to open negotiations with the Tibetan Government which had stubbornly refused to talk to the British Crown’s representatives. A year earlier, Colonel Francis Younghusband, accompanied by 500 troops had been dispatched to Khamba Dzong, which commanded the entry into Chumbi, the first valley in Tibet (bordering India’s Sikkim State and Bhutan).
The Tibetan Government tried to stop the young colonel near the border with Sikkim, but the small British Army continued to advance toward Khamba Dzong. Lhasa was living in the ‘white clouds’; wishful thinking, rhetoric and mantras weren’t enough to counter-balance imperial power. Lhasa had to ultimately listen to the British.
Khamba Dzong was again in the news this week when Xinhua announced that President Xi Jinping, Central Military Commission’s Chairman, presented honorary titles to two military units for their outstanding services. One is Unit 77656, a ‘model plateau battalion’, which was awarded for its performance “in safeguarding borders, ensuring stability and helping disaster relief” (The other award-winner is the PLA Navy Submarine Unit 372 posted in the South China Sea). Xi said that the “whole Armed Forces should learn from both examples.”
The Press Trust of India commented that Xi had “conferred special honours on the PLA battalion posted near Arunachal Pradesh.” The news agency got it wrong. Khamba Dzong (Gangba County for the Chinese) is not located close to Arunachal Pradesh, which is bordered by the Prefectures of Shannan and Nyingchi, but near the strategic Chumbi Valley — and the Siliguri Corridor. China knows that the corridor is one of the weakest points for Indian defence, at least until such time as the 17 Mountain Strike Corps is fully raised.
Beijing’s move to honour Unit 77656 may also have been prompted by other developments on India’s side, which have raised alarm bells in Beijing. Equating the Chumbi Valley (and India’s Achilles heel, ie the Siliguri Corridor) with the South China Sea is a message to New Delhi about the importance that China gives to the area. The award to the PLA’s crack Unit 77656 should be read in this context.
Why would China want to send a strong message to India? Not only has Delhi decided to raise the 17 Corps (though facing serious financial difficulties, it will have a strength of 90,274 additional troops ‘dedicated’ to China), but, importantly, it has also finally started developing its border areas.
Additionally, on August 19, a Sukhoi-30 fighter jet of the Indian Air Force (IAF) landed at the Pasigath Advance Landing Ground (ALG) in Arunachal Pradesh. The ALG’s reactivation comes a few weeks after the Indian Army’s Northern Command publicised the deployment of some 100 T-72 battle tanks in Ladakh.
At a time that China continues to claim the entire State of Arunachal Pradesh, the Pasighat ALG, located only 100km from the McMahon Line, has vital strategic significance. The ALG inaugurated by Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju, along with Air Marshal C Hari Kumar, commanding the Shillong-based Eastern Air Command, is one of eight ALGs to be opened in Arunachal Pradesh at a cost of some Rs1,000 crore.
The other ALGs are at Menchuka, Ziro, Aalo and Walong; they have already been activated this year. Tuting is expected to be ready by the year-end, and Tawang and Vijaynagar will hopefully follow. This will be a game changer and China is obviously uneasy.
But that is not all. Remember in August 2013, the IAF landed a C-130J Super Hercules transport plane at the Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO) airstrip in Ladakh near the Line of Actual Control (LAC); DBO is the highest ALG in the world. The IAF said: “The achievement will enable the armed forces to use the heavy-lift aircraft to induct troops, supplies, improve communication network and also serve as a morale booster for maintenance of troops positioned there.” It added that the plane “touched down the DBO airstrip located at 16614 feet (5065 meters) in the Aksai Chin area.”
In May this year, the Jammu & Kashmir Government approved construction of a 150km-long Chushul-Demchok road; Demchok is the last inhabited Ladakhi village area en route to Western Tibet — and Kailash. Once the National Board for Wildlife gives the final clearance, the road will be constructed by the Border Roads Organisation.
In June, Union Road Transport and Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari announced that the Government hopes to complete the construction of a new all-weather road to the Tibetan border in Uttarakhand by next year (“to make it easy for people to visit the abode of Lord Shiva”, said Gadkari). The Minister added: “We want to enhance tourism including religious tourism. We are cutting rocks through Himalayas to make a new alignment of highways through Uttarakhand for going to Mansarovar.” Whether China agrees to open the border to Indian pilgrims on a large scale is a separate matter, but for strategic purposes, the opening of the 75km route from Ghatiabagarh to Lipulekh is vital.
Back in the east, on August 6, the Ministry of Defence (MOD) has given its nod for the Arunachal Frontier Highway, a 2,000km road which will mostly run parallel to the McMahon Line. Whether it is feasible or not, has to be seen, especially in an area where all the ranges stretch from east to west and the rivers flow from north to south.
Rijiju had apparently taken up the issue with MOD, but the Directorate General of Military Operations (DGMO) had understandably raised serious objections. It appears now that Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, after considering different alternatives, secured the agreement of the DGMO, which suggested a few changes in the alignment in some areas. Parrikar told Lok Sabha: “Based on the operational requirements of the Army, the proposal for the construction of the Tawang-to-Vijaynagar highway has been endorsed.”
And then there is the deployment of the intermediate-range ballistic Agni-III missiles with a range of 3,500 km-5,000 km; in December 2013, the missile was successfully tested by the Strategic Forces Command. They are now being inducted. Also, the indigenously-developed supersonic surface-to-air missile Akash, capable of targeting enemy aircraft, helicopters and UAVs from a distance of 25km, and six squadrons should be deployed in the North-East. The BrahMos cruise missiles based in Arunachal Pradesh are also a strong deterrent that’s irritating China, and China has said so in The PLA Daily. And then let’s not forget there will be a few Rafale jets in a couple of years.
In these circumstances, one can understand that despite the massive infrastructure development on the Tibetan plateau, Beijing is deeply unhappy about India’s moves. The posting of the best troops in the Middle Kingdom at Sikkim’s door, so close to India’s weakest point, is China’s warning.
Younghusband, the great ‘imperial’ strategist who knew so well the terrain, must be watching from his grave these new formidable developments.