Military moves and reactions

The PLA’s profile in Tibet is increasing in strength and sophistication

RECENT STATEMENTS coming from New Delhi on China have once again upped the ante of the prevalent cold war between India and China, despite improving bilateral economic relations and the many confidence building measures instituted along the Line of Actual Control. When the Indian media highlighted increasing incursions by the Chinese—both in the western sector (Ladakh) and the eastern sector (Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh)—true to form, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson rejected these claims and called upon Indian officials and media to temper their language and work toward cooperative relations. At the same time, reports in the Global Times, a newspaper controlled by the ruling Communist party, highlighted increased Indian incursions along the Line of Actual Control.

These developments were followed by a statement attributed to General (retd) JJ Singh, governor of Arunachal Pradesh and a somewhat outspoken critic of China’s growing presence on India’s borders in the state. He claimed that India will deploy “two army divisions comprising 25,000 to 30,000 soldiers each”, along with 155 mm guns, helicopters and unmanned aircraft on the Sino-Indian border “within next few years”, to improve India’s defensive posture in its eastern sector.

Close on the heels came the news of Indian Air Force upgrading its profile on India’s eastern borders with deployment of Su-30 aircraft at Tezpur in Assam, close to the borders This development follows earlier operationalisation of Daulet Beg Oldi airfield in Ladakh, which is on the border with Aksai Chin in the proximity of Karakoram Highway.

Adding to the unfolding drama were the prime minister’s remarks in Parliament, wherein he indicated India’s desire for a close co-operative relationship with China but without compromising Indian position on the vexed boundary dispute issue.

The die was cast, and a Chinese verbal offensive was to be expected. Interestingly, Chinese officials in the past have been muted in their political statements or rebuttals to the statements emanating from Indian national or regional political leaders. Reactions, if at all, are covered in think-tank articles or websites closely associated with the People’s Liberation Army.

What has apparently surprised the Indian establishment is the extent to which China raised the ante through a chain of anti-India editorials in the semi-official newspaper like the Global Times, which is widely distributed among China’s research and policy communities, and also followed closely by the international community. On June 11, the newspaper published an editorial criticising Indian behaviour and warned New Delhi of the consequences of challenging China on the border. Upping the ante, the newspaper presented an online poll conducted by its Chinese  language online publication, which mentioned that 74 percent of those polled believed that China should not maintain friendly relations with India and 65 percent believed that India’s provocative moves of  enhanced troops deployment were both harmful to India and bilateral relations. The newspaper quoted Dai Xun, an expert in military affairs, who described India’s actions as “plundering a burning house”, destroying the mutual trust between neighbouring countries—while the international community was focused on the widely reported nuclear test in North Korea.

The Chinese reaction appears to be a part of a well orchestrated strategy. The rationale and logic of Chinese bellicosity appears to be what they see as a critical shift in Indian defence posture, one that calls on India to expand its military horizons beyond Pakistan and pay more attention to a dangerous Chinese encirclement of the Indian subcontinent, by creating a strong “dissuasive defensive posture”. The political construct of this is seen in the growing India-US relationship, a stable polity and an improving economy, which has enhanced India’s global standing.

From a Chinese perspective, a lack of reaction to strong statements emanating from India and military developments along the border were particularly disconcerting. Chinese see this as a sign of weakness and an attempt by India to carve out a strategic space in its favour, particularly in South Asia, where China is weaving a web of proxies through economic and political influence and growing military cooperation.

Taking these developments on their own could signify that India was upping the ante with China. However in this war of words, there is a need to underscore the growing Indian concerns about Chinese military build up in Tibet which provides China with four glaring strategic advantages.

The first area of concern is the discernible shift in the Chinese doctrine of minimum nuclear deterrence which has changed to ‘limited deterrence’, indicating capability to deter conventional and strategic conflicts as also manage escalation control. This is a clear allusion to a nuclear war fighting intent.

An important and very noticeable corollary is the integration of conventional missile forces which are part of the strategic second artillery (China’s nuclear forces command) and deployment of these in conjunction with PLA troops in the Chinese hinterland including Tibet. An associated development of this has been the pursuit of greater terminal accuracy of China’s missiles together with their integration as an operational precision strike weapon in their theatre offensive plans. This poses a serious danger to India.

Further, the conventional missile forces are being integrated with military area commands (equivalent to Indian army commands or even corps). This development has serious implication given the fact that China has over 1000 plus surface-to-surface missiles (SSMs) in their inventory and has the capability of hitting both targets at operational (in the field) and strategic level. Presently majority of these are deployed against Taiwan; but given growing warmth in relations between the two, there are signs of an incremental upgradation against India

Second is the increasing Chinese airlift capability enhancing its rapid reaction and punitive strike capability. As per current assessments, the PLA has the capacity to transport approximately a division plus (20,000 troops) by air in one go and air-drop a brigade (3,500 troops) in a single airlift. Its heli-lift capacity is nearly two battalions in a single lift. These developments need to be seen in the backdrop of enhanced deployment in Tibet of the rapid reaction forces of the PLA. China’s rapid reaction forces, better known as ‘Resolving Emergency Mobile Combat Forces’ (REMCF), are prepared for a 24- to 48-hour response to any contingency that might threaten Chinese interests. According to unconfirmed media reports, the PLA, in order to support rapid deployment of REMCF in Tibet and Xinjiang, has completed construction of two large heli-bases and an electronic & signal intelligence station in Aksai Chin. Some Indian analysts believe that it could later conduct early warning and surveillance missions against Indian army positions, and also on the tactically important Saltoro range near Siachen.

The third aspect is the peculiar command and control structure of Chinese forces in Tibet. The PLA forces are divided into seven Military Area Commands (MACs) and three active garrison commands. Each MAC is an integrated command having two to three group armies, an air element and other support forces such as missile, electronic and cyber warfare units. While all military districts have a clearly delineated command and control structure, the Xizang (Tibet) military district has dual command responsibility and comes under operational control of both Chengdu and Lanzhou MACs. This is primarily on account of the two theatre construct straddling India. Chengdu MAC is responsible for all operations in Eastern and Central Sectors whereas Lanzhou is responsible for operations in Ladakh. The implication for India is that the twin theatre threat, along with all their resources, can be brought to bear including the special forces units that are located in the region. What is more worrisome for India is that the infrastructural and forward logistic deployment have seriously enhanced build up schedules. These, coupled with improved capabilities of the Chinese forces, pose a serious challenge to India.

Fourth, is the growing Chinese air capability in Tibet. China has three main airfields in Tibet— Hoping, Pangta and Kong Ka. In addition, there are two at Lhasa and four more in the region that can be activated with little effort. These airfields allow China to speedily induct the REMCF into Tibet. In terms of air combat capability, the PLA air force (PLAAF) can support approximately two divisions in support of Xizang Military District. Furthermore, these resources can be augmented by air operations from Yunan province or use of Myanmar airspace under specific circumstances, given Beijing’s close relationship with the Myanmar’s military junta. China’s enhanced surveillance and independent global positioning system adds to its the operational capability against India.

The most important aspect concerns the infrastructural developments in Tibet. Three main road arteries link Lhasa; these together with the Gormo-Lhasa rail line and a dedicated oil pipeline have significantly enhanced PLA build up capability against India. What is most disconcerting is the deployment of five to six logistic brigades and stocking them with war like stores and commodities  such as fuel, ammunition and rations. This has led to an exponential enhancement of Chinese military reach and capacity which is a cause of obvious concern for India.

The so-called Indian moves and reactions essentially highlight this emerging challenge posed by the increasing strength and sophistication of PLA’s military profile in Tibet. Thus India’s force deployment, in terms of upgrading its air profile, raising two rapid reaction mountain divisions and infrastructural developments are essentially defensive steps and must be seen from this perspective.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s remarks contain a resolve for a just and fair resolution of the boundary dispute in an acceptable time frame. China’s stand on the boundary issue, despite certain agreed principles, is disconcerting to India. Despite raising the border dialogue to a political level, there has been no significant improvement; instead only a hardening of the Chinese position. Making Tawang a contentious issue, when it has been agreed that boundary settlement will not lead to major population shifts, amounts to shifting the goal posts and reneging from agreed principles.

India is also concerned about Chinese forays in the Indian Ocean that attempts to create supporting infrastructure in terms of airfields and port facilities in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Pakistan as part of Beijing’s “string of pearls” strategy. The focus on naval modernisation and development, in light of the recent Chinese naval writings, clearly points to a projectionist mindset and an attempt at dominating sea lines of communication, which was also unveiled in Beijing’s Somalia enterprise.

Instead of sabre rattling, both sides must discuss these issues across the table rather than postpone the final settlement to the next generation. An upgrading of military-to-military dialogue to bring about greater transparency, both in intent and action, would greatly help in solving these issue to the benefit of these two emergent giants. The proposal to establish a hotline between New Delhi and Beijing is a positive first step.