Role of Border Infrastructural Development in Disputed Areas: An Assessment of India’s Vulnerable Chicken’s Neck

An internationally recognised border frames a state and binds it by its sovereignty. This border-framing defines the power of a state with respect to a particular piece of land. Hence, border defence and security becomes a supreme priority for a country. However, in some cases, conflict-ridden areas around borders are demarcated by imaginary lines. Therefore, border clashes and standoffs become integral to the history of these disputed areas. Conflicting interests over disputed borders urge states to formulate new strategic policies and calculate their defence moves. Border infrastructural development is one of the tactics in this regard. It involves the building of roads, tunnels, airport, highways, buildings and bridges near the border for both socio-economic development and defence purposes. Security and economic situation related to border infrastructure is also indicative of the political economy notion. States lay a de-facto claim over a disputed territory by virtue of infrastructure. Today, several states are involved in border standoffs and India-China dynamics serves as a perfect example here.

The arch enemies India and China share 3488 km of an un-demarcated Line of Actual Control (LAC) that covers Ladakh, Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh. The escalating security dilemma of the two nuclear powers, with unrivalled political and economic competition and counterbalanced strategic partners (the United States for India, and Pakistan for China) define their relationship well. Battles and standoffs around LAC keep better prospects of India-China bilateral relations off the cards. The Agreement on the “Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity along the LAC” in 1993 and “the Agreement on Confidence Building Measures in the Military Field along the LAC” in 1996 serve as frameworks to settle the border disputes. Despite the agreements, the strategic significance of the territories along the border keeps the states engaged in impasses from time to time. The year 2017 witnessed a 72-day standoff in Dokhlam Plateau. Similarly, the year 2020 saw speedy movements of Chinese military along the LAC, causing the Indian troops to respond. To this date, the infrastructural development along LAC plays a pivotal role in the India-China military deadlock.

States lay a de-facto claim over a disputed territory by virtue of infrastructure.

Recently, the Chinese infrastructural roads in Dokhlam Plateau have become the top concern for the Indian military as it would ease the former’s access to the Siliguri Corridor. India’s strategically vulnerable corridor, situated in the West Bengal, earned a name for itself due to its similitude to a chicken’s neck. The 200 km long corridor is responsible for trade between the Northeastern parts of India to the rest of the country. Chinese roads, once developed in the Dokhlam Plateau, will provide the shortest route to the corridor through Sikkim and make it most vulnerable for the Indian military at the time of conflict. The mystery around the Dokhlam Plateau draws Bhutan, China and India towards conflict over their national interests. Their assertions related to Dokhlam vary. The middle of this tri-junction between the three states is known as Doka La by Bhutan, Gamochen by China and Doklam by India. With China’s sight set for shifting the tri-junction at Gamochen, the roads’ construction has triggered the Indian military to prepare for the worst circumstances. Chinese military presence in the Dokhlam Plateau by virtue of roads poses a strategic threat to the Sikkim sector, guarded by the Indian military initially. The border infrastructure along the disputed areas invites security confrontation and holds the possibility of igniting contestations over territory.

From a security perspective, road and tunnel construction in the Dokhlam Plateau places either of the militaries in a commanding position. China’s strategies influenced by Sun Tsu urge it to avail offensive and defensive position in the Dokhlam as well as the Chumbi valley. The Chinese control here will outwit India’s military defence trenches built in Sikkim along the Chumbi valley. This approach holds a strategic threat to India in many ways. The Chinese roads in Dokhlam will prove to be launching pads for an offensive attack against India’s territory of Kalimpong. Secondly, strategically the Siliguri corridor serves as a hub of rail and road networks reaching Indian military units and bases. Initially, the corridor reaches Northeast and West Bengal’s Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri and Terai through railroads and simultaneously connects to Indian military units lying along the LAC. For instance, New Jalpaiguri-NJP railway station connects to the Indian military units standing adjacent to China’s units.

India has exchanged weapons systems with the US like Chinook Helicopter and M-777 ultra-lightweight howitzers. These would enhance Indian military’s mobility primarily during times of conflict along the LAC.

Further, the rail network reaches Ghuwati in Assam and then Arunachal Pradesh in Tawang. Tawang Town is 25 km away from China and infrastructural networking to the line of supplies of Army 4 Corps that holds approximately 60,000 troops. Likewise, another rail network reaches up to Upper Assam; then continues by road to reach Nagaland and Arunachal and finally assists three army corps. An active rail network is of paramount importance to India. Chinese access to the corridor through roads will cut off India’s three initial military units connected to the corridor. As a spill-over effect, India’s status quo in the region as the security provider will be undermined. Nevertheless, China’s land assets near Dokhlam keep running high with the burgeoning rate of border infrastructures.

China’s headstrong decision to build border infrastructure along LAC has increased the prospects of future standoffs with India. China’s rail network connecting to Lhasa and from Lhasa to Yadong places military logistics in a favourable position. China’s initiative connects Xinjiang-Tibet road to the national highway that runs along the LAC. Another connection between Medog and Zayu adjacent to Arunachal Pradesh is alarming since it is a territory initially claimed by both India and China. Similar is the rail network near Sikkim that connects to Shigatse and Yadong. Hitherto, India refrained from border infrastructure development lest China may utilise it during a conflict. Now, India has picked up the pace by allying with its strategic partner the US and, by intensifying its border infrastructure.

India has taken up the arduous task to jeopardise Chinese efforts. This is reflected in the defence agreements signed with the US. Examples of such arrangements include Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) in 2018, Industrial Security Annex (ISA) in 2019 and Basic Exchange and Cooperative Agreement (BECA) in 2020. Until now, India has exchanged weapons systems with the US like Chinook Helicopter and M-777 ultra-lightweight howitzers. These would enhance Indian military’s mobility primarily during times of conflict along the LAC.

Border infrastructure not only serves an economic purpose but drives strategic security agenda of states as well. It ignites territorial claim in disputed areas.

To cope up with the military’s strenuous efforts in winter, India has initiated the Atal Tunnel near Ladakh along the LAC to enhance mobility of troops. Besides, India has commenced nine rail lines running from Missamari, Tenga and Tawang, as well as Bilaspur, Mandi, Manali and Leh all placed adjacent to the LAC. India’s re-initiation of construction of roads gives strategic competition to China. Indian and Chinese infrastructural endeavours will enhance mobilisation of troops across the LAC. This competitive environment anticipates a disastrous confrontation between the two arch enemies.

India and China’s militaristic attitude may bring them to the brink of war. The chicken’s neck serves as a trigger point for both. Their standoff holds drastic consequences for the region. The Centre for New American Security (CNAS) cautioned speedy mobilisation of Indian forces in critical areas without disruption, once infrastructural development is finished. Nevertheless, the incompletion of infrastructure reflects the vulnerability of the Indian military. The China-India standoff depicts the failure of diplomatic negotiations. Besides, the absence of any third-party intervention urges the two states to remain consistent with the retaliatory plans. Thus, border infrastructure not only serves an economic purpose but drives strategic security agenda of states as well. It ignites territorial claim in disputed areas. However, adherence to previous agreements may lower the prospects of war.

Maira Safdar

Maira Safdar

Maira Safdar is currently an undergraduate student of International Relations at Kinnaird College, Lahore.

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