India and China have a boundary of 4056 Km. The Line of Actual Control (LAC) is a loose demarcation line that separates Indian-controlled territory from Chinese-controlled territory in the Sino-Indian border dispute. The term was first used by Zhou Enlai, the then PM of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), in a 1959 letter to Sri Jawahar Lal Nehru, the then PM of India. It subsequently referred to the line formed after the India-China War of 1962. It is part of dispute as India did not accept it based on historical legacy. The demarcation existed as the informal cease-fire line between India and China till 1993, when its existence was officially accepted as the ‘Line of Actual Control (LAC). The LAC refers only to the line of control in the western sector of the border land between the Indian UT of Ladakh and Chinese Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) along with a disputed border in the east (the McMahon Line for India). This along with a small undisputed section in between, forms the effective border between the two countries. The length of the LAC is 3488 Km.
Xinjiang is one of China’s most restive regions. Conflicts between the local Uyghurs and Han Chinese has been frequent. The reason for such disturbances is that Xinjiang which was earlier called as East Turkestan came under Chinese Occupation only in 18th Century and in fact became independent for a brief period in 1949 but once again came under Chinese Occupation quickly.
China’s Infrastructure Build Up
To provide connectivity to this region which is quite rich in resources China decided to construct a road as early as 1951 when construction of China National Highway 219 (G219) commenced connecting Lhasa in TAR to Yecheng in Xin jiang Uyghur Autonomous Region over a distance of 2342 km. The road got completed in 1957. The road passes through the area of Aksai Chin which was under illegal occupation of china and as such it was one of the cause of disputes between India and China. Initially it was a gravel track but later was paved with Asphalt in 2013. The route was expanded in the China National Highway Network Planning (2013-2030) both northward and eastward to span the entire Chinese western and southern border. The new route will measure over 10,000 kilometres; stretching from Kom-Kansas in Xin Jiang to Dongxing in Guangxi. China is taking the road construction on the side of LAC which is under her occupation up to LAC with a view to ensure faster mobilisation of troops from hinterland. No wonder their motorable road network exists up to LAC in most areas. A total of 58000 km of roads have already been constructed in TAR.
The PRC has also improved the air and connectivity to the region. Air bases of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) exist at Hotan, Gar Gunsa, Kashghar, Hopping, Dkonka Dzong, Linzhi and Pangat airbases in the Xinjiang and Tibet region. The Chinese (PLAAF) has upgraded a number of these bases in recent times including the construction of hardened shelters, the extension of runway lengths and deployment of additional manpower to carry out more operations, they said. Sources said the Linzhi airbase opposite the North Eastern states is mainly a helicopter base and the Chinese have also built a network of helipads there to enhance their surveillance activities in those areas.
As far as rail connectivity to border areas from mainland China has been through Qinghai-Tibet Railway line connecting Golmud in Qinghai and Lhasa in TAR. It really added to the operational capability of the PLA to reach from Golmud to Lhasa in 36 hours thus build up which was earlier thought to possible in two seasons was now possible in 15 days. The Lhasa- Shigatse Railway Line was subsequently constructed and will soon be extended to Dromo near Sikkim which is quite close to Doklam and Nyingtri in North Arunachal Pradesh. Having already constructed and operationalised a spectacular rail network in Tibet, China is now looking to stretch its railway link through Nepal to its border with Bihar.
India’s Infrastructure Build Up
Relevance of Infrastructure in the Security Matrix of India- Better connectivity to the border areas and Infrastructure build up in the remote areas is an important element in ensuring the territorial integrity of the Nation State. It is often rightly said that the Darbuk- Shyok- Daulat Beg Oldie (DSDBO) road had rattled China and one of the reasons for their latest Misadventure had been their appreciation that the threat this Road is likely to pose to their vital interest in keeping CPEC safe from interdiction by India. In fact it is also speculated that this road in conjunction with Advanced landing Ground (ALG) at DBO may give options to India to interdict G219 from the Galwan Valley area which comes under Sub Sector North (SSN), which lies just to the east of the Siachen glacier and is the only point that provides direct access to Aksai Chin from India. The current tensions can be traced to Chinese objections over India’s road construction activities here. China is believed to be particularly concerned about a road branching from the DSDBO road towards the Galwan valley and the bridge that India is building across the Galwan River. The bridge is part of a network of feeder roads that India is building connecting the DSDBO Road. This bridge is about 7.5 km from the LAC and Chinese suspect that India may try to reach Aksai Chin from here. Better infrastructure will definitely reduce the extent of advantage which China has over India due to better infrastructure on their side of the LAC.
Agencies and Programmes
Border Roads Organisation (BRO)
- The BRO was formed in May 1960 with the mandate to develop infrastructure in remote areas of the north and north-east states of the country. In order to ensure coordination and expeditious execution of projects, the Border Roads Development Board (BRDB) was formed. The Board exercises the financial and other powers of a Department of Government of India and is chaired by the Raksha Rajya Mantri (RRM). Among others, Chief(s) of Army and Air Staff, Engineer-in-Chief, Director General Border Roads (DGBR), Financial Advisor (Defence Services) are members of the BRDB. The Secretary of the Board exercises the powers of Joint Secretary to the Government of India. The executive head of the BRO is the DGBR who holds the rank of Lieutenant General from the Corps of Engineers of the Indian army.
- In a bid to boost border connectivity, the Border Roads Organisation has been entirely brought under the Ministry of Defence.
- BRO has been keeping pace with the advancements in the domain of the technology. As such in recent times the BRO also inducted the latest equipment and machines and has introduced modern construction methods after successful trials to expedite works on surfacing with cementations base, use of plastics, geotextiles, etc. and various techniques for slope stabilization and modular bridges. In this connection it is significant to note that trials have also been carried out successfully for indigenously produced modular bridges under the Prime Minister’s Make in India Initiative. This will revolutionize the bridge laying capability in the forward areas.
Border Area Development Plan (BADP)–
- Although the BRO was working in the Border areas and steadily building the roads and bridges but the progress was rather slow till about 2006. Many strategic experts rationalised this slow progress as an outcome of India’s defeat in the 1962 war, whereby Delhi perceived such infrastructure as facilitating the advance of the PLA into India in the event of another war.
- During 7th Five Year Plan (1985-90), the Border Area Development Programme (BADP) was introduced and now is operational in 111 districts of 16 States and two UTs. The states are Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, J&K (UT), Ladakh (UT), Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Punjab, Rajasthan, Sikkim, Tripura, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and West Bengal.
- The aim of BADP is to provide important intervention of the Central Govt to bring about development of border areas by supplementing the State funds to bridge the gaps in socio-economic infrastructure on one hand and improving the security environment in border areas on the other. Financial allocation for the year 2020-21 is 705.055 Cr.
- India is building roads, including 17 highway stretches, in areas near its international borders that will double up as airstrips. The Centre plans to set up 29 airstrips on National Highways at strategic locations for emergency landings by fighter aircraft, according to the transport ministry. The proposed strips have been planned on highways and roads near the international border in the states of Jammu & Kashmir, Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Uttarakhand, Manipur and West Bengal. But for three all are in Border areas. The government has started construction of an emergency landing airstrip, a 3-kilometer long runway in South Kashmir in Bijbehara area of Anantnag district, along the newly constructed NH-44.
China study Group (CSG) for Road Construction– In the wake of heightened road and track construction work undertaken by China along India’s Northern & Eastern Frontiers, India constituted CSG in 1997, to study the requirement of road communication, along the China border for brisk movement of troops in case of aggression. At the end of the study, the CSG identified network of 73 roads called India-China Border Roads (ICBR), to be developed along the Indo-China border. The Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) in 1999 approved the construction of these roads by the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) under the Ministry of Defence. The project was to be completed by 2006 but the deadline was then extended to 2012. The Standing committee on Defence (SCOD), a body for legislative (parliament) oversight, appraised strategic road connectivity in 2018.
India-China Border Roads (ICBR)–
- This project is a GoI project which aims to develop the infrastructure along the Sino-Indian Border by constructing “strategic roads”. Several entities are responsible for constructing ICBR, including BRO which handles the bulk of the ICBR road construction work,National Highway authority of India (NHAI), Central Public Works Department (CPWD), National Projects Construction Corporation (NPCC), national Building Construction Corporation (NBCC), PWDs of respective states and others.
- Ministry of Defence (MoD) submitted a total operational requirement of 852 roads of length 30118 km to the BRO. Out of this, border roads have been classified under the Long Term Roll on Works Plan (LTRoWP); that is 530 roads spanning 22803 km including 73 ICBRs. The work structure for the ICBRs is divided among different agencies. Out of the 73 ICBRs, BRO was responsible for 61 roads while the remaining to other departments such as the NBCC, CPWD, NPCC and state PWDs. ICBRs are present in. UTs of; J&K and Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. Arunachal Pradesh has the most proposed ICBRs numbering 27.
- The BRO is responsible for constructing 105 ICBR, including 73 ICBR roads in Phase-1 to be completed by December 2020 and 32 ICBR roads in Phase-2. BRO is responsible for the road network of 32,000 km length, out of which 67% are assigned to ICBR roads. Out of 73 ICBRs in Phase-1, less than 50% were complete by 2018. Subsequently with additional funds the speed of construction increased. Some of the important projects include the already completed DSDBO Road, almost complete Rohtang Tunnel, named as Atal Tunnel in the Himachal Pradesh on Manali Leh Axis (the tunnel is ready and likely to be dedicated to the Nation during the current month); and in the North East the under construction Sela Tunnel and an under construction tunnel under the Brahmaputra River with Indian Railways.
- The Border Roads has executed 30 % more works in financial year (FY) 2019-20 as compared to FY 2018-19. Honourable Raksha Mantri during a recent review has directed that the 255 km road at the LAC (DSDBO Road) in the northern Himalayan region of Ladakh be completed on priority. The ongoing construction here is almost complete except for the last 45 km. It is believed that the RM Defence Minister has ordered that this be completed by October.
Tunnels to Provide All Weather Connectivity– One of the greatest challenge for the Armed Forces is to maintain an all-weather connectivity to Ladakh region. Ladakh range is the one which needs to be tunnelled to ensure all weather connectivity. Work on tunnels is in progress but it will be few years before India can boast of an all-weather connectivity. Undeterred India is continuing with her efforts to Improve the connectivity to Ladakh on both axes; namely; Manali axis and Zojila axis and trying for a third axes. Details are as follows:-
- Rohtang Tunnel on Manali – Upshi Axis is already complete and is waiting for the Inauguration during September 2020 itself. Rohtang Tunnel, though a step in right direction and helps connectivity to Lahul and Spiti Valley but is not enough to ensure all weather connectivity of Ladakh on this axis as there are four more passes on this route; namely BaralachaLa; Nakeela; Lachungla and Taglangla which need to have tunnels to make this axis all weather. Although the feasibility study for a 13.7 km tunnel at Baralachala has been completed but obviously it is a tall order and will take a long time to fructify.
- Srinagar- Leh Axis- This axis faces excessive snow load during winter month and despite best effort, it may be possible to reduce the closer period but it is difficult to keep it open all through the winter months.
(a) Zojila Tunnel It will be a 14.5 km tunnel. The tendering process is complete and contract has been awarded but work order has not yet been placed. However even when the tender is accepted and the work commences it will take minimum 84 months; provided all goes as planned. Thus; notwithstanding; the tall claims by anyone this axis will not be able to experience an all-weather connectivity before 2027.
(b) Z Morh Tunnel– it is the first step toward ensuring all-weather connectivity between Srinagar and Kargil. The tunnel gets its name from the Z shape of the road that it will replace between Sona Marg and Gagangir. It is planned to be a 6.5 km long road tunnel near Gagangir in Ganderbal district of the UT of J&K. The tunnel would avoid the regions of snowfall and avalanches. This is the limiting factor on this axis. The work on this project stalled project recommenced during Jun 2020. The completion time is 42 months and likely to be completed by Dec 2023. The completion of Zojila tunnel will substantially depend on the timely completion of the Z Morh Tunnel.
3. Third Axis to Ladakh– Recently there was a news item (TOI 28 Aug 2020) that announced acceptance of a tunnel on Darcha- Padam- Nimu Road at Shinkunla. This project when completed will provide a new all-weather axis ahead of Rohtang to Ladakh and will obviate the need to go for four more tunnels on Manali- Upshi axis. Operationally also this road will provide a greater strategic advantage beside ushering in development in Zanskar valley. NHIDCL, a wholly owned company of highways ministry, to prepare the feasibility within eight months for a 12.7 km tunnel under Shinkunla. This axis will substantially cut the travel time from Pathankot to Leh.
In July 2020, the home ministry had reviewed progress of the construction of more than 30 roads along the LAC, underlining the government’s resolve to upgrade roads in the region despite objections from China. Besides Ladakh, projects in Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim and Uttarakhand were also reviewed during the meeting. According to news reports, the GoI has speeded up the process of infrastructure construction as well as the amount of money spent since 2014. Hopefully these projects being executed will go through as planned for India to make up for the lost time in border area development plans in this part of the country. It needs to be noted that development is defence and India cannot afford further delay on these projects. After years of neglect the GoI has finally decided to address the aspect of improving connectivity by early completion of 66 key roads along the Chinese border by 2022.
Rail Connectivity to Ladakh
India in 2010, identified 28 strategic railway lines in areas bordering China, Pakistan and Nepal. Not one of them has progressed till date. After a series of interactions with the railway officials, the defence ministry reappraised the proposal in November 2010. It now prioritised 14 of the 28 lines for construction initially. In December 2012, Antony confirmed the same in the Lok Sabha when he described these 14 lines as being strategically important for national security. Preliminary survey for 10 of them was completed, but work did not begin on them despite the fact that these rail lines were declared national projects. The railway ministry did not wish to fund these projects as they were not commercially viable. The MoD asked the Finance Ministry for additional funds but the Planning Commission said these were not priority projects. No decision could thereafter be taken about the funding, and the railways, finance and defence ministries could not agree upon allocation of funds even for the Final Location Survey (FLS). There was little further progress and the matter went to the National Security Council, which in March 2014, identified four out of these 14 lines for “prioritised construction.” In 2014 it was informed to the Lok Sabha that four lines have been approved and these are; Missamari-Tenga-Tawang (378 km), Bilaspur-Manali- Leh (498 km), Pasighat-Tezu-Rupai (227 km) and North Lakhimpur-Bame-Silapathar (249km). CCS approval was accorded in 2015. The MoD was asked to transfer Rs 344.84 crore to the railways for final location survey (FLS) of these lines. By 2019 railways have completed final location surveys of three strategic lines along the country’s border with china.
Besides high costs and lack of funds, the tough terrain for these lines also poses a challenge. Experts say India does not have any experience of building rail tracks at high altitude and in tough terrain of the Himalayas. But strategic imperatives dictate that India will have to overcome the technological challenge, whether indigenously or by foreign collaboration.
Air Fields/ ALGs
In Arunachal, there are eight ALGs which have been made operational. These are Vijay Nagar, which is close to both Chines border as well as Myanmar border; Pasighat; Mechuka; Walong; Tuting; Ziro; Along and Tawang. These are good enough for C-130 J Super Hercules to land.
In Sikkim an ALG at Pakyong, 60 km from Chinese border has been made functional.
Besides above there are a number of Air Forces Bases for fighter operations and helicopters/ Important ones are at Tejpur, Chabua, Hashimara and Jorhat.
In Ladakh ALG at DBO is operational. In addition plans are afoot to develop ALG at Nyoma and extend Kargil Air Field to enable fighter operations. In fact an Air base is planned to come up at Nyoma which would be used even for Fighter operation. ALG at Fukche has been validated for small aircrafts but it is quite close to the LAC. Development of ALG at Chushul has been shelved but can be operationalised if required. Leh and Thoise are suitable for transport as well as fighter aircrafts. There are large number of Helipads but many more need to come up which can be used for FARP also as in days ahead IAF will need to operate drones, Attack Helicopters and Large transport Helicopters in the area. Areas are being identified for ALGs in Uttarakhand. It needs to be noted that in days to come more ALGs/ FARP/ Helipads in the area will have to come up to provide adequate air support/ casualty evacuation/ logistic support/ surveillance.
India has started infrastructure built up in border areas but still India is far behind in this sphere as compared to China. It needs to be appreciated that infrastructure development directly contributes to defence. India will have to compress the time frame to complete tunnels to provide an all weather connectivity. More ALGs / Helipads will have to be built because future operations will substantially depend on air operations. Railway lines will have to be taken up more seriously because that will give a quantum leave in seamless integration of the area with rest of the country. There are three areas which have not been discussed in this paper but need immediate attention and these are improving the communication improvement and additional bandwidth for better utilisation of cyber space and surveillance. Secondly; Also the present capacity of getting satellite imageries every 20 days plus needs to be reduced to say four to five days. Probably a dedicated geo-synchronous satellite may be required to be launched. Thirdly; there is a need to upgrade the boats for operations in Pangong Tso, which are now a decade old. Fourthly; winters are quite harsh in Ladakh and therefore building of a better habitat will be necessary. Finally; it needs to be appreciated that China is getting rattled only because of infrastructure of India attempting to catch up with her in infrastructure build up. It also needs to be appreciated that in the wake of current standoff the new normal would be quite different from what was in past. India needs to be prepared for more active and alive LAC. Therefore India needs to work in a time bound manner to build infrastructure for which different sets of financial and administrative rules for sanction will have to be adopted wherein new systems of Checks and balances will have to be introduced.
Indo-China Stand Off: A battle on China’s hands
The Author is a Retired Indian Army Officer