In the wake of border clashes along the Sino-Indian border, but harking back well before that, the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) has been bolstering its defensive networks along the un-demarcated Line of Actual Control (LAC). In fact, given the current tensions and massed troops on both sides, there is a danger that the LAC will become more like the Line of Control with Pakistan, a heavily fortified and strongly defended border where weapon fire exchanges regularly occur.
Indeed, Stratfor Worldview research has listed a sharp increase in new Chinese facilities along the LAC in 2019-20. A report by Sim Tack revealed five new Chinese surface-to-air missiles (SAM) sites, three airbases, one electronic warfare station and five heliports. Tack’s research asserted: “China’s construction drive projects a future military capability that will see long-term regional tensions with India sustained beyond the two countries’ recent standoffs. The 2017 Doklam crisis appears to have shifted China’s strategic objectives, with China more than doubling its total number of airbases, air defense positions and heliports near the Indian border over the past three years.”
One important difference along the LAC compared to the South China Sea, however, is that the former is solely a military confrontation. In the latter, China can use its coast guard or maritime militia in “gray-zone” contingencies to assert its claims. With no other players existing in isolated sections of the LAC, activity is confined purely to military operators.
Chinese airpower also allows the PLA to project military strength deep into the Himalayas. New infrastructure development supports this – for example, new aircraft shelters are being built that make it harder to observe planes. The PLA Air Force (PLAAF) has been operating H-6 bombers from Kashgar Air Base, these loaded with KD-63 land-attack cruise missiles. Similar bombers have also appeared at Golmud in Qinghai Province, along with Y-20 transporters, while the presence of 18 helicopters there suggests they could be rehearsing special forces heliborne operations.
Both sides accuse each other of firing shots along the LAC, the first time this has occurred in 45 years. Despite ministerial-level talks agreeing to disengage, both sides continue to mass troops along the border. The threat of further confrontation is definitely real.
There are complicating factors, however, such as any US support for India. Russia is friendly to both India and China, and it could emerge as a mediator. In recent weeks it is significant to note that China has revived a claim on a “very clear” border demarcation dating from 1959, as elaborated in a letter that Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai sent to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
This is the first time in decades that China has tacitly spelt out its stand on the boundary. Furthermore, plotting the presence of new Chinese outposts shows a clear intent by the PLA to enforce what it believes to be its legitimate 1959 territorial claim. This all amounts to the dissipation of relatively soft stances on the border demarcation in recent decades.
This long-running border confrontation has turned into a show of strength between two nuclear-armed neighbours. Each interprets the clash as emanating from “unilateral changes” by the other side, and there will be cost implications in terms of logistical support and even casualties to the climate and altitude as winter weather worsens. India knows it is at risk if it escalates a military confrontation and Beijing counter-escalates. However, Delhi must raise the cost of any Chinese challenge to the border’s demarcation, so now it must exhibit resolute strategic patience.
Despite ongoing security tensions all around China’s fringes, it seems the PLA has no shortage of people wanting to sign up. It received three million applications in 2020 for its 450,000 annual spots. This was despite recruitment drives in the first half of the year being postponed because of COVID-19. The government said there was “growing Importantly, there is a rising proportion of college recruits and graduates among applicants.