The Challenge Posed by China’s Military Posture in Tibet
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Issue Courtesy: Aakrosh | Date : 09 Mar , 2013

Hydropower Project on the Yarlung Tsangpo (Upper Reaches of the Brahmaputra) in Tibet. Map ©

China is in forceful occupation of approximately 38,000 square kilometres of Indian territory in Aksai Chin in the west and claims a further 90,000 square kilometres of Indian territories in the east, a claim that was reiterated with vehemence by Beijing as recently as in June 1998. This territorial dispute resulted in the deployment of military forces by both India and China in direct confrontation along 3,488 kilometres of what is called the Line of Actual Control (LAC),1 in place of a mutually recognised international border between them. To add fuel to fire, the alignment of the LAC is also disputed, causing considerable tension between the two countries.

Despite the two countries having signed the Agreement on Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity along the LAC in 1993, Chinese incursions across the LAC continue to be a regular feature and have continued to date.2 If anything, the frequency of these intrusions registered an upswing after the demise of Deng Xiaoping, in February 1997, with exponential increments thereafter when India conducted nuclear tests in May 1998. “Chinese troops have crossed over into Indian territory over 500 times since January, 2010. But much more than the sheer number of these ‘transgressions’ – the government refuses to call them ‘intrusions’ – the increasingly aggressive behaviour of the 2.5-million-strong People’s Liberation Army [PLA] along the LAC that remains a major worry.”3

The new road system allowed China to move large military formations swiftly along the entire length of the Indian border…

India cannot sweep this under the carpet, cannot reduce the threat manifest in the fact that the PLA has:

  • Intruded across the western and eastern extremities of the LAC on more than 500 occasions in the last two years.
  • Continued creating new defence works in areas earmarked to be resolved through the mechanisms of the Agreement of Peace and Tranquility.4
  • Proceeded with comprehensively upgrading strategic communications – road, rail and air – to facilitate the logistics required to deploy massive military forces along the Sino-Indian border and to support these in time of war.5
  • Been creating a forward network of roads and mule tracks to facilitate tactical operations in the forward areas, which according to the treaty are to be vacated by troops to reduce tensions. These include the Pangong Tso lake (Srijap) in Ladakh, Dibang district, Tawang division and Taksing and Maja areas in Arunachal Pradesh.

In an address to the U.S. House International Relations Committee, Benjamin Gilman, the chairman, stated that the greatest threat to peace in Asia was not the tensions between India and Pakistan but emanates from China, on India’s northern border. “Ever since occupying Tibet in 1950, the PLA has worked feverishly to build networks of all-weather roads, crisscrossing . . . Tibet. Two other major roads lead to Pakistan and Nepal. . . . The new road system allowed China to move large military formations swiftly along the entire length of the Indian border, affording Chinese generals the ability to concentrate mutually supporting armies almost anywhere along the frontier. A chain of permanent bases, many with huge underground storage sites and heavy fixed fortifications, linked to rear echelons by good roads . . . along the length of the border with India.”6

Of its seven military regions, Lanzhou and Chengdu Military Regions are responsible for the security of western China. Lanzhou and Chengdu Military Regions account for the deployment of two army groups and the Xinjiang Military Districts in the former and two army groups and the Tibet Military District in the latter.7 Western Tibet that covers Aksai Chin falls under the Lanzhou military command. The Tibet Military District covers central, northern and eastern Tibet with two infantry brigades and an infantry regiment. These military resources account for 30 per cent of the forces in the Lanzhou and Chengdu Military Regions based on the border between India and Tibet and the remainder in central Tibet and the northwest.8 The four armies based in western China could be employed to support operations from Tibet against India through flanking attacks through Myanmar or reinforce an offensive from the north. In addition, there are 17 secret radar stations and 14 military airfields, 8 missile bases, at least 8 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and 20 intermediate-range missiles.

The four armies based in western China could be employed to support operations from Tibet against India through flanking attacks through Myanmar or reinforce an offensive from the north.

The nature of these military assets is undergoing fundamental changes as a consequence of the on-going military modernisation programme. They are improving their firepower, communications and mobility. Reports from Western sources suggest that “In addition, China’s western armies received . . . the newest and most advanced arms and equipment.”9

To support its military strategy, China has built a network of intelligence-gathering stations along the southern edge of the Tibetan plateau to effectively monitor Indian air space, electronic communications and troop movements.10

The 14 major air bases it has constructed on the Tibetan Plateau, along with innumerable satellite airstrips, provides the PLA air force the potential to dominate the airspace over Tibet and gives it a capability, for the first time, to execute combat operations over Indian Himalayas. The defence minister stated in Parliament on 6 March 2011, “PLA is also rapidly upgrading several other airstrips in TAR as well as south China to add to five air bases from where Chinese Sukhoi -27UBK and Sukhoi- 30 MKK fighters have practiced operations in recent times.”11

Given its acquisition of mid-air refuelling capabilities and the increased runway lengths of upgraded air bases, China is fast increasing its prospects to prosecute deep penetration air attacks against major Indian cities in the hinterland.12

The second leg of the Chinese strategy to prevail against India is directed to gaining military linkages and economic influence amongst India’s South Asian neighbours.13

Myanmar, which was recognised by both the British and the Japanese as “the back door to India,” has in the past three decades been targeted by China to steadily increase its political, military and economic influence. It bought its way into favour with the Myanmar’s military government by facilitating a peace agreement with the Communist Party of Burma, a particularly difficult secessionist group, selling it nearly $2 billion of arms, providing cheap consumer goods, rebuilding strategic surface communications and upgrading port facilities to enhance maritime activities – a strategy that has given it considerable strategic leverage, including a hinterland to the Indian Ocean from where it can prosecute its seaward strategy. This strategy encountered some hiccups in the “Golden Triangle” astride the border with Yunan Province in 2009 when the Junta Government perceived that the Chinese were using ethnic armies as pawns to hedge their bets.14

To support its military strategy, China has built a network of intelligence-gathering stations along the southern edge of the Tibetan plateau to effectively monitor Indian air space, electronic communications and troop movements.

On the southern tip of India, China overwhelmingly remains Sri Lanka’s main supplier of arms. It also provides military equipment and materials to Bangladesh.15

The pincer movement to isolate India from South Asian militaries is completed by the massive arms supplies to Pakistan and assistance of technological, material and human resources to enhance its fledgling defence industrial establishment.

The PLA navy is directly responsible for the strategy for creating naval bases at Munaung, Hainggyi, Katan Islands, Coco Islands, Mergui and Zadaikey Islands, along Myanmar’s coastline;16 provisioning Pakistan’s navy with ship-borne cruise missiles [type 802] and LY60N surface-tosurface missiles17; the creation and management of China’s subsurface strategic nuclear forces, which Admiral Zhang Liaozhong defined as “the chief objective of this century”; and, finally preparing the PLAN to emerge into the Indian Ocean armed with aircraft carriers and a new generation of nuclear-powered submarines by 2000.18 China has already developed and launched both these platforms in keeping with General Xu Guangyu’s conception. The first aircraft carrier, Liaoning (Varyag), was commissioned into the PLAN on 25 September 2012,19 having a capacity for 30 J-15 fighter planes.20 “But Beijing will need at least three to six more ‘proper’ aircraft carriers, while the navy’s importance within China’s forces as a whole needs to be considerably enhanced.”21

“The Pentagon report said another carrier, one made from components made in China, may already be under construction and ready to sail in 2015.22 The congressional study goes on to state that China has also launched three nuclear submarines of its own design that are capable of firing nuclear-armed intercontinental missiles.23

…there are 17 secret radar stations and 14 military airfields, 8 missile bases, at least 8 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and 20 intermediate-range missiles.

Yet another area that needs the careful attention of the Indian government is that of China’s extant and emerging nuclear strategic and tactical capabilities that have major implications for the Sino-Indian equation and the latter’s long-term security interests.

Not only is China a long-established NWS with a carefully thoughtout nuclear strategy, but it continues to make significant increments in its nuclear weapons arsenal, is creating a subsurface nuclear [SSBN] capability that gives it the potential to deploy nuclear weapons in the Indian Ocean, has tested and produced tactical nuclear weapons, has introduced a nuclear war fighting doctrine in the PLA for use against qualitatively superior conventional forces, has demonstrated ominous trends by integrating missile warfare with nuclear and conventional capabilities into its concept of war,24 and has a no-first-use strategy directed towards non-nuclearweapon states (NNWS) party to the NPT, thus excluding India from this dubious assurance.25

There is sufficient evidence to indicate that China has at least 25 nuclear-tipped medium-range ballistic missiles based in Tibet, along with an undisclosed number of nuclear-configured short-range tactical missiles. These deployments are singularly India-specific as they have the range to strike major Indian cities or engage military formations in the Himalayas.

According to a declassified report by the U.S. air force’s National Intelligence Center on China’s medium-range missile deployments, “. . . in areas where the CSS-2’s 3,100 Km range capability is required, crew training activities remain robust and the number of deployed launchers likely remains unchanged.” In missile bases in western and southern China [51st and 52nd Armies], the deployment and crew training of CSS-2 missiles is being significantly reduced and substituted by the mobile CSS-5 [Mod-1]. In contrast, the CSS-2 activity in the 53rd Army at Jianshui launch complex and Kunming training area continues on a large scale. The U.S. air force report concludes: “The reason for this activity is probably related to the CSS-2’s maximum range capability. . . . 3,100 km, versus 2100 km for the CSS-5 [Mod-1], allows the CSS-2 missiles at Jianshui to target most of India, while the CSS-5 Mod 1 can cover South East Asia from the same launch facilities.”26

…is creating a subsurface nuclear [SSBN] capability that gives it the potential to deploy nuclear weapons in the Indian Ocean…

What is even more worrisome is that “the large scale CSS-2 training activity involving at least two launch units from Datong field garrison has also recently been noted at Haiyan training facility in the 56th Army, located in Central China [Tibetan Plateau – assets located at Da Qaidam, Delingha and Xiao Qaidam].” The report goes on to explain that “From Datong the CSS-2 can strike targets in India and Russia . . . there is evidence of replacement of some CSS-2 assets in Datong with the CSS- 5 Mod 1.”27

This means that the potential to strike Indian targets is being changed to mobile launchers from silo-based launch facilities.

Another source from the Russian Federation reports that the upgradation of the network of highways stretching across Jianshui, Kunming, Yunan, Chengdu, Lhasa, Haiyan and Datong is specifically designed to take heavy mobile missiles with suitably surveyed and recorded launch sites along the route.

As the strategic assets created in this region by the PLA only have relevance to the Indian subcontinent, it would be foolhardy to underplay Chinese strategic designs vis-à-vis India and ignore the special issues that need to be thrashed out between two nuclear weapon states.

The projection of the Chinese nuclear strategy to the subcontinent gains further credence with its blatant assistance to Pakistan in developing its nuclear weapons arsenal through the transfer of nuclear weapons systems, warhead designs–related materials and technology; the training of nuclear scientists28 and their exposure to the series of China’s nuclear tests.29 The deep strategic linkages between these two countries have provided the basis for strategic collusion to be extended in the time of conflict, thereby increasing manifold the threat to India and the complexities of formulating and implementing an appropriate nuclear strategy.

The danger to India lies in that the combined effect of a misplaced sense of euphoria on perceived diplomatic successes in Sino-Indian relations combined with the focus of the national attention on Kashmir could result in a failure to understand the dynamics of the emerging Chinese threat.

A fourth and equally ominous leg of China’s strategy to gain leverage over India lies in its national water resource strategy, one of the objects of which is to manipulate the Asian sources of water to establish a “hands off’ control over the river basins flowing through other regional powers that China considers a threat to its long-term national interests.

In the 1990s, it came to light that Beijing had drawn up plans to use nuclear explosions, in breach of the international test-ban treaty, to blast a tunnel through the Himalayas to divert water from the Tsangpo, which is the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra River, to the Yellow River.30 Ostensibly, this is a part of the world’s biggest hydroelectric plant. The efficacy of this project is under severe criticism from Chinese engineers.

This scheme will have a direct bearing on millions of Indians living downstream. They would be at the mercy of Chinese manipulations with the potential to flood them or withhold their water supply, as was manifest this year by the havoc created in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam by Beijing’s manipulation of dams on the Tsangpo.31 A corollary would be a similar employment to weaken the coherence and isolate military defences designed against a major offensive from the north.

What should be of equal concern is that China’s alleged intention to use a 10 megaton PNE to excavate the tunnel in close proximity to the watershed that divides Tibet from India would have a disastrous effect on India. Firstly, the ability to contain such a massive explosion is questionable and release of radioactivity into the atmosphere in close proximity to India cannot be ruled out. Secondly, the radiological contamination of subsurface soil would be carried by the river waters into India and Assam; endangering millions of people [Click to see the map].

In his book War at the Top of the World, Eric Margolis aptly sums it up: “Most worrisome to India . . . is the steady increase of Chinese military power on the Tibetan Plateau, which confronts India with the specter of simultaneously facing serious strategic threats on its western, northern and eastern borders.”

The danger to India lies in that the combined effect of a misplaced sense of euphoria on perceived diplomatic successes in Sino-Indian relations combined with the focus of the national attention on Kashmir could result in a failure to understand the dynamics of the emerging Chinese threat. A false sense of complacency appears to blanket Chinese capabilities and tell-tale actions that forebode an ominous long-term strategy that could jeopardise India’s long-term national security interests and sovereignty.

The MEA has been downplaying existing realities in the relationship with China vis-à-vis the northern borders and the ripple effect in the west and the east.

As a consequence of the diplomatic initiatives India has instituted, peppered with high-level visits between luminaries of the two countries, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has created an impression of an increasing drawdown of the friction in Sino-Indian relations. The track record of the substance of these high-level diplomatic exchanges is, however, questionable. The issues to enlighten both the public and parliament are as follows:

  • Why is it that it took the Chinese seven years to provide the Experts Working Group (EWG) with the basic document through which the alignment of the LAC has to be resolved, a map giving coordinates of the LAC as they claim it to be? These claims are over four decades old, and it is impossible to believe that a dispute existed without one side knowing what it claimed. Even more perturbing is the fact that the highly touted recent exchange of coordinates is restricted to the central part of the dispute, where the differences are marginal, if any. The euphoria of the current exchange of maps is misplaced. The PLA continues to withhold the coordinates of their concept of the LAC along the western and eastern portions of the LAC, where China continues to claim Indian territory well beyond the line of troop deployments and where it continues to intrude and build roads and defence works. One cannot but conclude that the Chinese acceptance of the Agreement on Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity is a ploy to gain time for the implementation of a larger, more ominous strategy.
  • Clarifications on the significance of Beijing having pointedly conducted a nuclear test during the visit of President S. D. Sharma and the report of another such test in Lop Nor on 12 June 1999 as the Indian external affairs minister commenced his visit to Beijing
  • How does one reconcile the satisfaction voiced by the external affairs minister on the state of Sino-Indian relations after his interaction with his counterpart and the president of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in June 1999 in the absence of any discussion on the two areas of conflict bedevilling the relationship between the two countries? According to highly placed sources, the Chinese fobbed off the lack of movement in the agreed dialogue to resolve the differences in perceptions of the LAC as a matter that cannot be hurried and would take some time to resolve itself! Even of more concern is the categorical statement that there was no change in the Chinese position on India’s nuclear potential from the position it had taken at the P-5 and UN Security Council Resolutions passed in mid-1998. In other words, it amounted to a Chinese adherence to their stated position that India must roll back its nuclear weapon capabilities.

The lack of sense of urgency required to create structures and means to offset Beijing’s machinations can result in a very unprepared India when its hand is called.

Curiously, South Block has been sending out contradictory signals suggesting a lack of inter-ministerial coherence in policy to deal with this major aspect of India’s national security interests. The MEA has been downplaying existing realities in the relationship with China vis-à-vis the northern borders and the ripple effect in the west and the east. Reports attributed to sources in the Ministry of Defence (MoD) indicate a certain ostrich-like approach to a real and growing threat from China.

These fissures can be dangerous as they allow the adversary points of ingress that keeps the can of worms alive. The lack of sense of urgency required to create structures and means to offset Beijing’s machinations can result in a very unprepared India when its hand is called.

India needs to be seen for what it is – a nuclear weapon state that has no reservations about discussing the concerns it has that are an obstacle to a benign relationship with its Asian neighbour. In particular:

  • China must be questioned on the failure to present EWG maps of its claimed position vis-à-vis the LAC.
  • China must be questioned about the road- and track-building activity in the area of the LAC that the EWG is expected to resolve.
  • China must be questioned about safeguards it proposes to put into place to ensure that its domestic water resource policy does not endanger the Indian population downstream and that its PNE applications do not pollute the environment beyond its own territories.
  • The government needs to broach the nuclear question squarely and refuse to accept the standard stonewalling tactics of the PRC.

The recently resumed dialogue being steered by the national security adviser, Shiv Shanker Menon, with his counterpart in Beijing is an excellent opportunity for the government to correct the divergence in the approach of the MEA and MoD to the Chinese dilemma. In the continuing diplomatic efforts to resolve the differences with Beijing, the government needs to be seen to have the political will to question its position on the perceived aberrations in its negotiating position and its conduct in South Asia.


  1. Shishir Gupta. “China Willing to Settle Boundary Issue, Boost Ties.” Hindustan Times, 9 December 2012.
  2. Prem Shankar Jha. “The Bull in China’s Shop.” Tehelka, 31 October 2009.
  3. Rajat Pandit and Vishwa Mohan. “China Violated Line of Actual Control 500 Times in Last Two Years.” Times of India, 17 May 2012. <http:// km-finger-area-pangong-tso>.
  4. Henry L Stimson Center. “Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace Along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border.” 7 September 1993. < the-line-of-actual-control-in-the-india-china-border/>.
  5. Virender Sahai Verma. “Infrastructure in Tibet.” Journal of Peace Studies 18, no. 12, January–June 2011. pp. 88–98.
  6. Benjamin Gilman, chairman of the House International Relations Committee. Statement released on 6 April 2000 at a Full Committee hearing on “The Status of Negotiations between China and Tibet.”
  7. Ground Forces Organisation. 13 December 2012. <http://>.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Eric S. Margolis. War at the Top of the World. 2000. pp. 212; Benjamin Gilman. “Text: Representative Gilman Says China Uses Tibet to Encircle India.” House International Relations Chair on China/Tibet, 6 April 2000.
  10. Vijai K. Nair. “The Chinese Threat: An Indian Perspective.” China Brief, the Jamestown Foundation.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Op cit, n. 9.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Nation. “Burmese Junta Issues a Warning to China” [editorial]. 4 September 2009. opinion_30111426.php>.
  15. Trefor Moss. “Bangladesh Eyes China Arms.” Diplomat, 30 June 2011. <>.
  16. Op cit, n. 10.
  17. Jeffrey Hays. “China and Pakistan Relations: Cooperation and Nuclear Bombs.” Facts and Details, April 2008. Updated 2012. < china.php?itemid=2249>.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Wikipedia. “Chinese Aircraft Carrier Liaoning.” < wiki/Chinese_aircraft_carrier_Liaoning>.
  20. CNN Wire. “China Lands First Jet on Aircraft Carrier.” 27 November 2012.
  21. Bernhard Zand. “Stronger Chinese Navy Worries Neighbors and US.” Spiegel International, 14 September 2012. < world/strengthening-of-chinese-navy-sparks-worries-in-region-and-beyond-a- 855622.html>.
  22. Office of the Secretary of Defense. “Annual Report to Congress. Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2012.” May 2012. <>.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Gregory Kulacki. “China’s Nuclear Arsenal: Status and Evolution.” Union of Concerned Scientists. < nuclear-modernization.pdf>.
  25. Jeffrey Lewis. “China and No First Use.” Arms Control Wonk, 14 January 2011. < 3>.
  26. Bill Gertz. The China Threat: How the People’s Republic Targets America. Regnery Publishing, 2002. pp. 233–234. A secret report by the U.S. air force’s National Air Intelligence on China’s medium-range missile deployments and a report on flight test preparations for an ne DF-31 mobile intercontinental ballistic missile. NAIC-1030-0988-96, November 1996.
  27. Ibid.
  28. GlobalSecurity.Org. “Pakistan Nuclear Weapons.” <http://>.
  29. Xia Mozhu. “Nuclear Testing in China’s Western Territory: Exclusive Interview with a Chinese Military Veteran.” Epoch Times, 18 March 2012. < 204617.html>.
  30.  “Damming Tibet’s Yarlung Tsangpo-Brahmaputra and Other South Asian Rivers” [Weblog]. 24 May 2010. < damming-tibets-yarlung-tsangpo.html>.
  31. Tibetan Political Review. “Damming Tibet to Save China: Hydropower’s Coming Golden Decade.” 23 March, 2011.
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Brig Vijai K Nair

Brig Vijay K Nair, specialises in international and nuclear issues.

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4 thoughts on “The Challenge Posed by China’s Military Posture in Tibet

  1. When is China going to stop? Why man love to make wars and talks about military stuff when clearly the world doenst want that? How is that difficult to hbderstand peace? How is that difficult to anyone to understand that you cant destroy the only world we have? How difficult it is to go into peoples brains that the earth is not a joke? We are not a joke..why talk so much about wars and guns? Like.SERIOUSLY WHERE THE F** ARE UR BRAINS?.

  2. According to news reports on 26 June , 2020 , US Secretary of State , Mike Pompeo has said that the U.S. is reviewing to deploy about 9500 troops to counter the military threat of Chinese Army to India and Southeast Asia . The countries sought to be covered in the support are India , Malaysia , Indonesia and Philippines. The US has already some troops in Guam or elsewhere to look after its strategic interests in Japan and South Korea. India is reported to be closely examining implications of the statement made by Mike Pompeo.
    On the aforesaid new development of strategic nature , it may be apt to refer readers to this Vedic astrology writer’s prediction of 11 November , 2019 in article about the U.S. – “ Astrological probable alerts for 2020” – published at on 1 January , 2020. The related text of the prediction reads like this in the article :-
    “ Predictive Conclusions.
    4. The months of April to June , particularly May-June in 2020 look to be trending into the scene some serious worrisome landscapes. There could be some war or war-like conditions across the globe , which the US may be called upon to address”. So , reading between the lines of the statement said to have been made on 26 June by the US Secretary of State , Michael Pompeo , it can be said that in the view of the US , war-like conditions somewhere across the globe in Asia have come up , calling upon the US to address. That seems to be suggesting precise amazing accuracy of the prediction made by this writer last year 2019 on 11 November.
    The reported statement of the US Secretary

  3. A very interesting article indeed. Though written in 2013, the questions and the underlying threats posed in the article seem to be getting very true as one treads along in 2017. A very important take away from the article has been when the writer highlights the manner , in which Indian govt. is being constrained to think and act in Kashmir only, while China and its ally, Pakistan, make double the efforts to strengthen their positions all across our northern and eastern borders. High time, the government gives up its ostrich like stance. One can recall that this was precisely the position that we had taken way back in 1962, that China will not attack us . And then we had to suffer the embarrassing defeat .

  4. I think India talks too much about military things, and nothing about economic development. If China is a challenge for many, including India, this is because of its spectacular economic growth. Recently India started to move upward in the economic domain, but all statistical figures indicate a difference of 1 to 6, or even 10, or even more times in favor of China.
    Hence, the most intelligent action for India will be to make peace to China and Pakistan and develop the best economic and cultural relationship as possible with these two countries.
    Already, India has the highest military spending per capita in the world, but 300 million paupers residing within.
    Nevertheless, India is the only large power of the world that has to deal with its own guerrilla war.
    These last two facts show that India elites’ strategy is wrong and harmful for national development, and continual feeding of this wrong thing will only augment the problems.

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