Wednesday, September 3, 2014

India Playing Catch up along China Frontier

Nitin Gokhale

After years of neglecting the Northern frontiers, the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force are re-calibrating their strategy giving a hard push to improving its war-fighting capabilities against its more powerful neighbour.

Ladakh for instance is buzzing with an unprecedented military buildup. Consider this:
  • A new Air Force Station to base fighter jets is coming up just 25 km from the Line of Actual Control
  • For the first time since India’s independence in 1947, a full-fledged armored brigade of T-72 tanks will now be based in Ladakh.
  • One more infantry brigade (3000 plus troops) is now moving closer to a crucial area where Chinese troops had intruded and stayed put for over three weeks in 2013.
  • Work has been accelerated on at least 13 strategically important road projects in this region.
But Ladakh is not alone in getting the attention of military planners. Across the 4,000-plus km of Himalayan frontier that stretches from Ladakh in the northwest to Arunachal Pradesh in the east, India is aggressively pushing for the development of its border areas.

In Sikkim and in Arunachal Pradesh – like Ladakh – more troops have been pumped in, equipped with armoured regiments and artillery support, more fighter aircraft like the Su-30 are based closer to the contentious borders, and more roads are being built right up to the border, following the reversal of an earlier policy of not developing the border areas.

In effect, India is playing catch up with China. But it will take almost a decade for India to come anywhere near the infrastructure that the Chinese have built in TAR.

Since the 1990s, China has built a network of roads, airports and railway in the sparsely populated TAR which gives the PLA a distinct advantage when it comes to mobilizing its forces if needed in double quick time. The Qinghai-Tibet Railway that connects Lhasa to mainland China is set to come closer to the Indian border at Xigatse (near Sikkim) at the end of August. By 2020, a rail link to Nepal’s capital Kathmandu is also planned. According to an Indian assessment, there are 15 airfields in the TAR, 12 of them meant exclusively for military purposes. The Indian military on the other hand, is still dependent on old airstrips and a couple of airfields built in the 1960s.

India’s aggressive push along the border seems to have raised curiosity if not alarm in Beijing, at least sufficient for top-ranking Chinese generals and party officials to step up the frequency of their visits to cantonments bordering Ladakh and Sikkim.

The Hindu’s reported that a top ranking general of the PLA carried out a rare inspection visit to the disputed western section of the border with India, including stops to inspect troops at two sites that have been at the center of recent differences over incursion incidents — near the Karakoram Pass and the contested Pangong Tso lake. General Xu Qiliang, who is one of two vice-chairmen of the Central Military Commission headed by President Xi Jinping – the highest-ranking position in the Chinese military – made the visit last month to inspect frontier troops in Xinjiang and Tibet, including a stop in the Aksai Chin region claimed by India.

Other newspaper reports in China have indicated that a senior Communist Party of China official spent unusually long time in Western Tibet in areas bordering Ladakh and Sikkim. They reported that Deng Xiaogang, Deputy Party Secretary of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, responsible for the law and order, security and police, took considerable time “to inspect the border security and the People’s Liberation Army bases.”

On June 20 for instance, an article in The Tibet Daily notes that “Deng Xiaogang inspected Rutok, the border county.” Rudok is located near Pangong Tso stretching between India and China. It is where Chinese “water” incursions often occur. Addressing the border guards, Deng Xiaogang stressed: “Tibet is very special strategic location; it is an important barrier for the national security; development and stability in these border areas is an important part of the region’s overall situation.”

For India though much remains to be done in Ladakh as my recent tour of the villages along the border revealed.

Important roads in Ladakh are non-existent. For instance, the crucial Lukung-Spangmik-Man-Merak-Chushul road, that goes all along the Pangong Tso needs to be black-topped urgently with either culverts or cemented troughs to take care of streams.

The Dungti-Koyul-Demchok stretch also needs a well-defined road. Right now, one travels only on natural gravel.

The Chushul-Rezeang La-Tasaga-Loma road could be opened for Indian tourists with adequate safeguards to let them do the Lukung-Chushul-Tsaga-Loma-Chumathang-Kairi-Karu-Leh circuit.
Local residents complain of poor communication facilities. BSNL must take steps to install mobile towers at Demchock, Pangong, Tsaga, Phobrang, and Chumur villages.

In fact, it is disconcerting to note that the Chinese mobile network is available across at least two of these places. Even Chushul's already installed BSNL tower is not functional.

Bus service between Chushul and Leh and Demchok-Leh needs to be at least twice a week, instead of once a week now.

The other disturbing aspect at the border is the friction between ITBP/Army and local residents at various places like Chumur, Demchok, Phobrang and Merak. The issues may seem trivia at the momentl, but they have a potential to flare up.

Finally, there have to be more ITBP/Army posts across the Indus, closer to the LAC at least on the stretch between Dungti and Demchok. Right now Indian posts are at least four-five km in depth, delaying reaction time.
India cannot and need not match up to China's massive infrastructure development and military build up in TAR but all arms of the Indian government must work together to make the border areas secure so as to provide enough deterrence against any Chinese aggression along the Line of Actual Control.


Published Date: 3rd September 2014, Image source: http://media2.intoday.in

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