The news that Chinese president Xi Jinping would skip the G20 Leaders’ Summit in New Delhi from September 9-10 dashed hopes of a bilateral meeting between him and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, where they could have further extended their discussion of a fortnight ago. Meeting on the sidelines of the BRICS summit in Johannesburg on August 24, Modi and Xi agreed to intensify efforts for “expeditious disengagement and de-escalation” of troops along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh, where the Indian military and China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have been involved in a protracted standoff since May 2020. Though there is large-scale deployment of men and machines by both sides on the LAC and multiple military and diplomatic negotiations have failed to produce complete disengagement, China’s defence minister Gen. Li Shangfu, during his visit to New Delhi in April, had sought to delink the standoff from bilateral ties, saying the border situation was “stable”. India’s stand on the matter is unchanged: unless the border row is resolved, relations cannot be normal. Despite Chinese claims, the situation on the ground tells a different story—the Chinese have been constructing military/ dual-use infrastructure and strengthening existing installations at a frenetic pace in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), often within striking distance of the border with India.
Whatever Chinese leaders may say, Indian military observers believe that China’s infrastructure build-up belies expectations of complete de-escalation and the restoration of the pre-April 2020 status quo, as India has been demanding.
Indeed, China observers are surprised at the fast-changing strategic geography of Tibet. As observed in satellite images and other reports, new strategic assets include construction and upgradation of roads in proximity to the LAC, underground missile launch silos, blast pens in airfields, positioning of fighter jets, construction of new railway lines and dual-use civilian-military villages. Around 50 air strips/ airports and helipads are being completed to facilitate faster mobilisation of men and materiel. All these are indications of PLA’s extended deployment preparations.
Though the Indian military has readied itself for any misadventure with better infrastructure and defence preparedness, the swiftness of development across the LAC has been a point of concern for military planners in South Block. The Indian military firmly believes that the PLA is preparing for offensive operations, not shoring up its defences. Jaidev Ranade, an expert on China, points out Beijing’s “almost fanatic” dual-use infrastructural developments in Tibet—new expressways, plans to build more airports and two new railway lines linking Tibet to Xinjiang and Yunnan. According to its latest budget, China is planning 191 key projects this year in Tibet, with an investment of more than 143 billion Yuan ($21 billion/ Rs 1.72 lakh crore).