China’s massive infrastructure build-up in Tibet far in excess of genuine civilian requirements is causing concern to the government of India. Defence minister A K Antony has spoken in parliament of the rapid development of rail, road, airfield and telecom infrastructure and military camps being undertaken by the Chinese authorities in Tibet. He assured the MPs that ‘necessary steps’ were being taken to counter these developments.
Antony acknowledged that a road network stretching across 58,000 km has been constructed and five operational airfields have come up at Gongar, Pangta, Linchi, Hoping and Gar Gunsa in Tibet. Extension of the Qinghai Tibet Railway (QTR) line to Xigaze and another line from Kashgar to Hotan in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region is also in progress.
Control over Tibet forms part of the larger concept of Chinese national integration under President Hu Jintao’s dictum of ‘going down the road of development with Chinese characteristics and a Tibetan flavour.’ In the wake of ethnic violence in Tibet in 2008, increased force levels of the paramilitary people’s armed police, Chinese frontier guards and the garrison duty forces have been stationed in the region.
China has chosen to upgrade the infrastructure and logistics system in Tibet to enhance the ability of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to become a more mobile and better-equipped fighting force that can be deployed faster and sustained over a longer period of time. The concentrated expansion of infrastructure in Tibet has improved the PLA’s capability to rapidly induct integrated forces.
The QTR railway line is being further extending westwards from Lhasa to Xigaze. Along with the rapid development of the lateral road network in Tibet, a large number of axial roads leading to passes bordering India are being constructed. The roads are being constructed to military specifications in order to be turned over to the PLA in the event of war or an internal disorder. The logistics build-up opposite India’s eastern theatre is a cause for concern since it augments the PLA’s ability to deploy rapidly from the mainland.
Construction of new airfields and the upgradation of advanced landing grounds (ALGs) and helipads in and around the TAR, coupled with the acquisition of new transport aircraft, will enhance China’s strategic airlift capability resulting in faster induction and concentration of field formations in comparatively shorter time-frames and, consequently, over shorter warning periods. It also boosts the striking range of PLA Air Force fighter aircraft and provides the ability to strike and engage targets in India on a broad front and in depth.
Another major infrastructure development is the construction of new missile bases in Tibet. China has placed advanced Dong Feng-21 medium-range ballistic missiles along the borders it shares with India. During a future conflict with India, the PLA could easily move 500 to 600 mobile ballistic missile launchers to bases close to the Indian border from their current deployment areas opposite Taiwan.
Complexities of the Tibetan terrain, vagaries of climate, and sustenance capacities of the thrust lines chosen, are all factors that influence the depth of operations that are planned to be undertaken. To address this aspect, the PLA is reportedly constructing Hyperbaric Chambers to facilitate the rapid acclimatisation of troops brought in from lower altitudes. It is also building the first batch of oxygen-enriched barracks using plants for troops in the TAR at the Nagchu Military Sub-Command at an altitude of 4,500 metres.
It is in the Indian interest to upgrade the logistics infrastructure in the states bordering Tibet so as to facilitate the rapid reinforcement of sectors threatened by the Chinese during any future conflict. Simultaneously, India should enhance its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities to maintain all round vigil on the border. The army and the air force must also upgrade their firepower capabilities by an order of magnitude so as to engage and destroy PLA forces at a distance.