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Chinese military upgrades near disputed Himalayan border viewed as provocative in India

China and India remain at odds across the Line of Actual Control in the Himalayas
China and India remain at odds across the Line of Actual Control in the Himalayas. Photo: AP

The upgrading of China’s military projection and logistics capabilities along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Himalayas, designed to prepare for contingencies, is being viewed by the Indian side as offensive and provocative.

Citing Indian intelligence sources, The Hindu said the People’s Liberation Army had expanded its troop accommodation capacity within 100km of the LAC from 20,000 to 120,000 in the past two years.

The Indian newspaper’s report, published late last month, said the PLA had deployed four divisions, or 48,000 troops, from its Xinjiang military district, with the soldiers being rotated on the disputed border facing eastern Ladakh, where the worst fighting in over four decades saw at least 20 Indian soldiers and four from the PLA killed in the Galwan Valley on June 15, 2020.

Zhou Chenming, a researcher from the Yuan Wang military science and technology think tank in Beijing, confirmed the PLA had renovated and expanded barracks along the LAC since that clash, including permanent buildings and demountable ones.

“Many of the permanent buildings are warehouses for fuel storage, while other accommodation and portable facilities will be used for housing troops,” Zhou said, adding that the PLA was capable of deploying up to 120,000 troops to the LAC in a week if necessary.

“China doesn’t need to station so many troops in border areas because of its powerful military projection capacity and infrastructure and logistics supply network.”

A photograph released by the Indian Army in February last year shows People’s Liberation Army soldiers and tanks near the Line of Actual Contro
A photograph released by the Indian Army in February last year shows People’s Liberation Army soldiers and tanks near the Line of Actual Control. Photo: AFP

The Hindu said other major upgrades had included expanding infrastructure such as runways and hardened blast pens to house fighter jets, additional long-range artillery and rocket systems, and better air defence systems.

Compared with India’s roughly 200,000 troops stationed along the LAC, Zhou said the PLA’s total deployment numbered just several thousand.

“The upgrades and renovation of frontline posts and troop deployment in the Western Theatre Command facing the Indian side aim at preparing for any surprise attacks by the Indian army,” he said.

Yogesh Gupta, a former Indian ambassador to Denmark and a specialist in China-India relations, said New Delhi viewed the increase in PLA troop accommodation capacity and upgraded infrastructure as offensive moves aimed at intruding on Indian territory.

“India is constantly improving its defences,” he said. “China may have more weapons … but the world is not sure of the quality of the Chinese weapons or the morale, training and fighting abilities of the Chinese troops.

“India’s deployments are defensive, those of China are offensive. But this is not surprising given the differences in the thinking of the two countries, particularly China under Xi Jinping.”

Beijing and New Delhi have competed in the deployment of advanced and sophisticated weapons near the LAC over the past two years.

State broadcaster China Central Television said the PLA had deployed ZTQ 15 light tanks and drones to the Himalayas in the past year, while Indian media reported that New Delhi had boosted its firepower along the LAC in October with additional Bofors guns and ultralight M-777 howitzers.

Wang Dehua, an expert on South and Central Asian affairs at the Shanghai Centre for International Studies, said a lack of mutual trust between the two Asian giants had caused the ongoing tensions.

An Indian soldier keeps
An Indian soldier keeps watch at Bumla Pass on the India-China border in Arunachal Pradesh in October 2012. Photo: AFP

“Some of the Indian elite have still not stepped out of the shadow of the 1962 Sino-Indian border conflict,” Wang said, referring to a bloody skirmish that left thousands dead on both sides.

“My personal view is, the main purpose of China’s move to upgrade infrastructure and deployment along the LAC is to prevent a recurrence of the bloody 1962 clash, paving the way for both sides to come up with a solution for the border issue through peaceful negotiations.”

Wang said China had been “quite wary” of India’s working with the United States in its Indo-Pacific Strategy, which Beijing believed was aimed at establishing a mini-Nato in the region.

Rajeev Ranjan Chaturvedy, an international studies professor at India’s Nalanda University, said India would continue to seek a peaceful solution, even though New Delhi was also preparing for any “aggressive intrusions into Indian territory”.

“We are witnessing a change in language and behaviour. Two-way trade has crossed US$100 billion, reaching US$125.6 billion,” said Chaturvedy, adding the 16th round of military talks between the two sides, scheduled for Sunday, could be seen as a good sign.