Over the past few months, China has been quietly boosting its military infrastructure in the southeastern part of Chinese-occupied Tibet (COT) along Sikkim, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh.
A few weeks ago, Chinese president Xi Jinping inaugurated the construction of a crucial 1011-kilometer rail link between Ya’an in southwest Sichuan province and Nyingchi in southeast CoT.
Nyingchi is close to the Arunachal Pradesh border and it will take only a couple of hours to move heavy military hardware from Nyingchi to the border.
The proposed railway line, which is being billed as an engineering marvel and will cost 319.8 billion yuan (47.8 billion US Dollars), will run close to the Dibang Valley and Upper Siang districts of Arunachal.
Ya’an is well connected with Chengdu, a distance of about 140 kilometers, which is the headquarters of western theatre command of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
Nyingchi is well connected with Lhasa, the capital of CoT, which also houses a major military garrison.
Trains on the new line will travel at speeds between 120 and 200 kilometers per hour and reduce the travel time from Chengdu to Lhasa from 48 hours to 13 hours.
China is also upgrading its existing air bases in CoT and building some new ones.
The PLA Air Force (PLAAF) bases at Shigatse, Lhasa (or Gonggar), Nyingchi and Chamdo in southeast CoT are being extended and squadrons of military unmanned aerial vessels (UAVs) have been stationed there.
The runway at Shigatse has already been extended and a new airstrip and hangars has been constructed for UAVs.
New aprons for helicopters and a new hangar for airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft has also been constructed.
Shigatse is due north of the trijunction of Sikkim, CoT and Bhutan. It has surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) with a range of 330 kilometers that brings the whole of Sikkim and Bhutan and parts of North Bengal, including the Bagdogra IAF base within its sweep.
Shigatse also has long-range radars with anti-stealth capabilities and phased array radars with missile guidance capabilities.
The upgradation of Shigatse into an all-weather air base capable of sustaining high-intensity offensive air sorties is nearly complete.
The Gonggar air base, a dual-use airfield that also serves civilian air traffic to Lhasa, is undergoing massive expansion with a third runway, aprons and hangars for UAVs nearing completion.
The Nyingchi Mainling dual use airport (see this map) is just about 15 kilometers away from the border with Arunachal Pradesh.
This airport has undergone a massive upgrade and apart from being used as a fighter air base, it will also be used to induct troops. Recent satellite images show construction of barracks for accommodating soldiers at the airbase.
The PLA’s 52nd and 53rd Mountain Combined Arms Brigades are headquartered at Nyingchi and troops from elements of these brigades that specialise in high altitude warfare have been deployed along the border with Arunachal Pradesh.
The Changdu Bangda airport at Baxoi county of Chamdo in CoT has also been upgraded. The dual civilian-military airport has an additional runway and a terminal exclusively for military use.
New aprons to accommodate PLAAF aircraft have also been added. The flying time between Changdu Bangda airport and Chengdu (the headquarters of the PLA’s Western Theatre Command) is just 1.5 hours.
Chengdu has a huge reserve of troops, including special forces, which can be swiftly airlifted to Changdu and then deployed along the border with Arunachal.
The PLA has reportedly established a hi-tech surveillance unit at Xiachayu (see this map) in Zayu county (Nyingchi prefecture) of southwestern CoT. A PLA detachment has also been stationed there.
Located north of Arunachal’s Anjaw district and west of Lower Dibang and Dibang districts, Xiachayu is just only about 40 kilometers from the border with Arunachal.
Xiachayu, a small town on the banks of the Chayu river that flows into Arunachal Pradesh and becomes the Lohit river, is connected by an all-weather road (S201) to Rawu that lies on the Tibet-Sichuan highway (G318).
A detachment of PLA, most probably its special forces, have been stationed at a newly created small garrison at Shangzayu (see this map), about 42 kilometers north of Xiachayu.
Satellite images show newly created barracks and other facilities at the small town that also lies on the banks of the Chayu river.
Shangzayu is about 20 kilometers away from Dibang Valley district of eastern Arunachal Pradesh.
Gedangxiang and Beibengxiang are two other towns close to the Arunachal border where PLA detachments and surveillance units have been stationed over the past few months.
Gedangxiang (see this map) is about 20 kilometers north of the LAC and 40 kilometers from Anini, the headquarters of Arunachal’s Dibang Valley district.
Beibengxiang (see this map) is about 10 kilometers north of the LAC at Arunachal’s Upper Siang district.
This town lies on the banks of the Yarlung Tsangpo that becomes the Brahmaputra when it enters India through the Upper Siang district.
Other towns near the Arunachal border where PLA detachments, high-tech surveillance equipment and other military hardware (including artillery) have been stationed in recent months are Danniangxiang, Miruixiang, Qiangnaxiang, Puqu Township, Zhaxiraodengxiang, Yumai and Shannan.
A mid-sized garrison has also come up at Quzhuomuxiang in Cona county of Shannan in CoT, about 45 kilometers north of Bumla Pass in Tawang district of western Arunachal.
Similarly, a number of surveillance posts and new PLA camps have been set up along the border with Sikkim, and most of these have been camouflaged.
That goes for India’s military assets in Sikkim as well — they are well camouflaged in the mountain slopes and valleys.
China is also upgrading its roads in COT along the border with India and Bhutan, and constructing military logistics hubs along these roads.
India Not Unduly Worried
But India does not have any reason to be unduly worried. The Indian army has adequate number of battle-hardened troops and units specialising in high altitude warfare and special operations stationed across the border with CoT in Arunachal and Sikkim.
India’s deployment of troops and military hardware in Arunachal and Sikkim predates the recent moves by the PLA. China is, actually, playing catching up with India.
The PLA also suffers from many disadvantages when compared to the Indian army. PLA troops have no actual battlefield experience and the political control over PLA units is a severe handicap (read this).
However, the Indian army has not been complacent. “We are keeping a constant watch on what China is doing and have already taken adequate measures to preempt any mischief by the PLA. Our surveillance — electronic and other means — is very strong,” said a top officer at the army’s Eastern Command headquarters in Kolkata.
These measures include intelligent deployment of troops and military hardware, positioning surveillance equipment on strategic heights and strengthening defences along some vulnerable stretches of the border with CoT.
As for the PLAAF, all its bases in CoT are at very high altitudes and air operations from those bases suffer from what is called ‘load penalties’.
Due to reduced air density, PLAAF’s aircrafts, including its fighters, are able to carry much lesser loads and fuel, and hence their strike range is limited.
IAF fighters do not suffer from this huge handicap since all the IAF air bases are in the plains.
The PLAAF is also many years away from having an adequate fleet of tankers for midair refuelling. This can neutralise the PLAAF’s disadvantage arising out of operating from CoT, but only to a limited extent.
India, thus, is well prepared to foil China’s anticipated plans to wage a limited border war in the eastern sector.
Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.
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