China’s Developments along the LAC

The Line of Actual Control (LAC) is the delimitation between the territory controlled by India and China and is different from the borders claimed by both the states in the Sino-India border dispute. The LAC is divided into three sectors: the western sector (Ladakh on the Indian side and Tibet and Xinjiang on the Chinese side), the middle sector (Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh on the Indian side and Tibet on the Chinese side), and the eastern sector (Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim on the Indian side and Tibet on the Chinese side). The Sino-Indian border dispute pertains to the disputed territories of Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh. China and India went to war over the disputed territories in 1962 and have had multiple flair-ups since then.

The recent increase in tension between India and China started in May 2020 and escalated when troops from both countries faced off in melee combat in Ladakh/Aksai Chin, leading to deaths on both sides. Since then, there has been a standoff between Chinese and Indian troops, with both states having mobilised a significant number of men and equipment to what is referred to as the “roof of the world”. This deployment of troops has also led to significant developments by the Chinese in the areas along the LAC,

Since the increase in tensions in 2020, China has undertaken massive efforts to enhance infrastructure in Tibet and Xinjiang, the two Chinese territories bordering India. To this effect, it has undertaken the construction of new heliports, upgrading and expanding existing heliports and dual-use airports, and expanding the road and rail network in these two territories.

Increase in air power infrastructure

In Golmud, the Chinese have built a massive heliport with around 60 hangars to house helicopters of various sizes. The heliport is right next to the Golmud airport, which frequently houses fighters, bombers, transport, airborne early warning and other special mission aircraft. Golmud is also a rail hub and connects Tibet to the neighbouring Xinjiang and Qinghai. Although it is by no means near the LAC, the airport and the massive heliport in Golmud will be very useful in providing support to other bases in the region, further closer to the LAC. And the inductions of the Z-20 helicopters optimised to operate in the plateau regions will help decrease complications of helicopter operation in high-altitude areas.

Other heliports have been established much closer to the LAC, for example, Rutog county in western Tibet to Nyingchi City in the east of Tibet. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Army (PLAA) Aviation units are responsible for operations from these heliports. The heliport in Lhasa, which is not far from Sikkim, has also been upgraded, and UAVs have been observed there. At the same time, other smaller bases have been constructed in Aksai Chin and another near Doklam.

These developments are also helping uplift the two territories, which are often believed to be lacking behind the rest of China.

The same has been done with airbases and dual-use airports; existing ones have mostly seen extensions or upgrades, and new ones have been constructed where needed. In Xinjiang, Hotan airbase, which shares its runway with the civilian airport, has seen the addition of a second runway and some new hangars. Hotan normally hosts fighters, but in recent times UAVs have also been spotted at the airbase, with their complete operational and support infrastructure.

Other bases are seeing the addition of hardened aircraft shelters, maintenance hangars and ammunition storage facilities. For example, Ngari Gunsa Air Base usually houses four fighters and has 12 new hardened aircraft shelters. This not only increases the survivability of the aircraft stationed there but also shows that more aircraft will be deployed in the future. It is also interesting to note that Ngari Gunsa is across the border from India’s Ambala airbase, which houses their new Rafael fighters. Lhasa airbase is undergoing similar upgrades with 24 hardened shelters and maintenance and support facilities. Underground facilities are also being constructed in the mountains just south of the airbase. They may house command and support facilities and air defence systems. Kashgar airbase has seen an extension to its apron, which is used to house H-6 strategic bombers deployed at the base, as well as hardened shelters and related support and maintenance facilities.

There is also evidence that new airbases are being constructed in Tibet and Xinjiang. Two such locations are Tingri and Damxung in eastern Tibet, which are across Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh, respectively. Besides, a third is being built in Tashkurgan, southern Xinjiang, close to China’s border with Tajikistan. These bases are in locations which previously did not have any military facilities.

Land-based logistics capabilities

To help in the movement of troops and equipment and to increase the connectivity of Tibet and Xinjiang with the rest of China, the road network of the two regions has seen expansion. Tibet saw an increase of 51% between 2015-2020, from 7,840 km to 11,820 km. While in Xinjiang, the road network grew from 17,830 km to 20,920 km between 2015-2020. Eight new roads have been built connecting the main G219 highway to remote areas along the LAC.

Similarly, the rail network in Xinjiang has also seen expansion, from 5,900 km in 2015 to around 7,800 km in 2020. This has improved the logistics capability of the PLA as the new section connects various military installations throughout the region. The geography of Tibet makes the construction of railway lines difficult. There are two main lines, Qinghai–Tibet and Lhasa–Nyingchi railway, which can transport troops and equipment. The latter, which opened in June 2021, undertook the transport of troops belonging to a combined arms brigade under the PLA Tibet Military command to an exercise area.

Other Military installations along the LAC

Previous to the skirmish in 2020, China only had a small observational presence in the Despang Plains. But currently, there is a significant military presence with infantry, armour, and artillery deployment along with the requisite housing, support and ammunition storage. The Galwan Valley and the Hot Springs areas have also seen the development of permanent bases supplied by roads and powered by solar panels. And in the Pangong Tso area, China has developed large-scale support infrastructure and a bridge over the lake, which connects troops to the town of Rutog, housing numerous military facilities. There are also some temporary positions in the Spanggur Lake area, supported by the permanent positions in the Pangong Tso area and the larger facilities in Rutog.

When viewed together, these developments show a substantial push by China to develop its military infrastructure and civilian infrastructure, which the military can use in times of conflict. These developments are also helping uplift the two territories, which are often believed to be lacking behind the rest of China. In any future confrontation with India, it will allow China to quickly deploy its forces to the LAC while also enabling it to expand its anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) capabilities along the LAC.

Syed Zulfiqar Ali

Syed Zulfiqar Ali has completed his Masters in Defence & Strategic Studies from Quaid-i-Azam University, and is currently serving as a Research Assistant at the Centre of Strategic and Contemporary Research.

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