ThePrint has noted that Doklam now has helipads, housing for 1,800 troops, artillery, communication trenches & air defence. It is not a temporary station.
China has sent its 55th Brigade to Lhasa, the first reinforcement in 32-years. The information comes from ThePrint columnist Colonel Vinayak Bhat, a retired Chinese translator and photo-interpretation expert. He privately cites AKC, a China expert also known to me, and who reads the Chinese media.
The Chinese are surprisingly open about their military compared to India. Once you learn to decode the five-digit code for each brigade-sized and larger military unit, it is relatively simple to identify unit locations. AKC also reads shoulder patches; the Chinese military is anxious to publicise itself, and photographs/video clips abound. Bhat has known AKC to be wrong just once in 20 years. Interestingly, Bhat’s continued revelations about the Chinese buildup in the Doklam area, based on satellite pictures, has forced the Government of India to come clean about the Chinese buildup, which earlier GOI minimised.
Bhat and ThePrint’s efforts to track the buildup represent citizen journalism at its best. After all, if every intelligence service in the world knows the situation, why should the Indian public be kept unawares?
If the brigade remains, it will likely be the first permanent reinforcement of Tibet in more than 50 years, representing a seismic shift in Chinese military policy. Briefly, despite India’s doubling the number of its Army divisions after 1962, at least by 1970, the Chinese began drawing down their forces in Tibet. In that year, it had 15 divisions, some of which might have been no more than 6,000 troops. With India having been taught a lesson, and Chinese control of Tibet secure, by 2017 the Chinese had only three brigades left. Two are directly opposite Arunachal Pradesh, and one is at Lhasa, often used for internal security.
In 1986-87, responding to India’s impending Operation Falcon, the Chinese brought in eight divisions and several independent regiments. In 1987, after Delhi-Beijing talks, the reinforcements withdrew. China did not react to the raising of four new Indian mountain divisions starting circa 2005. Beijing correctly believed that it had India so cowed down that we posed no military threat.
After the autumn faceoff at Doklam, I expected one new Chinese brigade for Tibet, and one for Ladakh, defended by border troops for decades. There is no news on a Ladakh brigade. The 55th Brigade’s lineage comes from the PLA’s 55th Division, which participated in the 1962 War. The division belonged to 19th Corps, re-raised in 1969 after previous disbandment subsequent to the end of the Korean War. It next went to 21st Army after its parent army was disbanded in 1985; then became a motorised brigade in 1998, after serving as an experimental test-bed for many years. It transferred to 47th Army in 2003. In 2007 47th Army was disbanded, and the brigade went to either the new 76th or 77th Army, part of today’s Western Theatre Command. It is unclear if the brigade has taken over 54th Brigade’s cantonment in Lhasa, and if 54th Brigade has moved to Doklam. These details are boring but do provide insights into the PLA’s long-term thinking.
Whatever the plans for 55th Brigade, its arrival in Lhasa shows unequivocally that China is prepared to continue the Doklam confrontation in late spring or early summer.
Bhat has noted that Doklam now has several helicopter pads, housing for at least 1,800 troops, dug-in artillery, communication trenches, air defence, and so on. It is not a temporary station. Also, China appears to have quadrupled its permanently based fighters from 8 to 32 at four airbases. They can, of course, comfortably accommodate double the number of aircraft. One base faces Ladakh.
When India has 10 divisions in Eastern Command, equal to the pre-1962 War division count, the addition of an extra brigade in Tibet makes no difference. What it signifies is that China will not vacate Doklam, now absorbed as part of China’s salami-slicing strategy. This strategy has been used against India for more than a decade and is most apparent in Ladakh. There, India has permanently deployed two additional brigades. One is to bring 3rd Division to full-strength for the first time since 1971; the other is at Daulet Beg Oldi or shortly will be. Other new brigades include one armoured, and one planned as XVI Corps reserve. China’s real point in its buildup is to pull Bhutan away from India by saying “India cannot protect you, only we can”. Intelligence suggests the Bhutanese have understood the point. Any changes in Bhutan’s geopolitical alignment will come slowly, but they will come
Ravi Rikhye’s new book, Assessing India’s Ability to Fight a 2-front War, will be available through Amazon Kindle by April 1, 2018.