Over the last decade, China has invested in strengthening the infrastructure along its border areas. The Chinese army began building a permanent road in Doklam this year in an effort to boost its military capabilities in the region. Analysts say, with regards to infrastructure, India woke up late, tried playing catch up, but still lags behind.
Has the infrastructure mismatch between India and China determined the two nations’ military postures? We ask experts.
A paucity of infrastructure explains India’s manpower-intensive approach at the border — Iskander Rehman, Senior Fellow at the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy
A glaring infrastructural disparity persists along the LAC.
For decades, Indian military planners deliberately eschewed the development of border infrastructure, fearing it would facilitate Chinese ingress deep into the Indian plains and lowlands. Only in the mid-2000s did a consensus emerge on the pitfalls of this approach. The lack of solid infrastructure along the Indian side of the LAC had rendered large tracts of contested land acutely vulnerable to Chinese probing and creeping forms of encroachment.
India’s road and rail construction projects have been delayed for a variety of reasons, ranging from bureaucratic inefficiency, lack of funding, manpower, heavy machinery and airlift capabilities for the Border Roads Organization. The terrain along the Indian side is often considerably more rugged than along the Chinese side, rendering construction projects more challenging. As of last year, India had completed only 21 out of 61 strategically designated border road projects. The government sanctioned 28 strategic railway lines in 2010. Seven years later, not one has fully materialized.
The net result is dispiriting.
Whereas Chinese troops can gain rapid access to most areas along the LAC, Indian troops often have to trek several hours, if not longer, to reach certain areas. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) benefits from a more robust, multilayered communications architecture than the Indian Army, and has built a number of oxygen-rich, hyperbaric chambers to help alleviate mountain sickness of any follow-on forces from the interior in case of war. Refined product pipelines traverse the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), helping to ensure a regular flow of petroleum to Chinese air and mechanized forces.
The paucity of infrastructure along the Indian side has helped justify its manpower-intensive approach to defence of the border, and has an effect on crisis signaling in the event of a conflict. Indeed, in the event of tensions — as we have seen over the summer — India needs to position more troops in proximity to the epicenter of crisis so they can intervene rapidly. China, on the other hand, stations most of its conventional forces in its interior, surging only in the event of conflict. The impressive development of China’s highway and high-speed railway networks has facilitated this process, in particular via the extension of the Qinghai-Tibet railway (QTR). These logistical feats have not been lost on Indian planners, who estimate that Beijing could dispatch several divisions to the LAC within a few days.
While India struggles to build roads along the border, China builds airstrips and rail links in Tibet – Harsh V Pant, Distinguished Fellow and Head of Strategic Studies at Observer Research Foundation, and Professor of International Relations, King’s College, University of London.
India’s patchy infrastructure along the border with China is one of the major constraints on New Delhi’s ability to effectively wield military power against China. There is no denying the fact that India’s border infrastructure modernisation has significantly lagged China’s. India took a concerted decision not to build border roads after the 1962 war, fearing that Chinese forces could use them for rapid incursions into Indian territory. Though India has now been paying attention to its border areas for the last few years, after a reappraisal of its earlier policy, it has been late in evolving a coherent policy response.
China, on the other hand, has already taken a leap forward in this regard and this has given it the ability to rapidly shape the local balance of power to its advantage. The Indian Army’s ability to quickly mobilise men and material to remote posts in the high altitude region along the Line of Actual Control remains severely hampered. Even the projects which have been initiated over the last decade suffer from cost overruns and delayed completion timelines.
Where India is struggling to build even roads along the border areas, China is moving forward with its airstrips and rail links in its Tibet Autonomous Region. This infrastructure differential gives China significant operational and tactical advantages when it comes to its military posture vis-a-vis India.
A prudent strategy is to develop asymmetric military capabilities — Ashok K. Kantha, former Ambassador of India to China and Director, Institute of Chinese Studies and Distinguished Fellow, Vivekananda International Foundation
China has invested a lot to build military-related infrastructure in Tibet and Xinjiang and along the India-China border. India has a significant shortfall in infrastructure along the border which affects its ability to induct forces in those areas. India has to close this gap and cannot allow this process of catch up to be constrained by any skewed ‘code of conduct’, as proposed by China. However, this deficit is only one of the many determinants of our military posture.
There is the larger issue of a huge gap in the size of economy and military budgets of India and China. China spends over four times as much on defence than India, and has an economy that is five times larger. Given this differential, a prudent strategy for us is to focus on developing asymmetric military capabilities to offset China’s advantage, rather than numerical parity.
This will involve a mix of defensive and offensive capabilities as a deterrent along the India-China border and building up our naval edge in the periphery, leveraging our strategic geography and ‘home-field advantage’. Here, we can take a leaf out of China’s playbook for dealing with a militarily stronger USA.
There is already a deterrent in place, but we must continuously reinforce it, including through upgraded infrastructure. This will reduce the temptation on the other side to indulge in adventurism or probing actions along the Line of Actual Control. Belligerent noises emanating from Beijing against the backdrop of the standoff in Doklam underline its urgency.
Under Modi, infrastructure development and the establishment of high-altitude infantry divisions are a priority — Ankit Panda, Senior Editor at The Diplomat.
The discrepancies between Indian and Chinese infrastructure on either side of their disputed border are well known. After India’s defeat in the 1962 war, New Delhi has watched anxiously as China developed and buttressed roads and communications infrastructure along the border. India, however, has been reactive and took few steps to counteract this weakness. While successive Indian governments have grappled with the need for better infrastructure, especially in the northeastern sector, the Indian military has raised several mountain divisions in Arunachal Pradesh. These include a mountain strike corps raised specifically for rapid mobilization offensive maneuvers into Tibet.
Under the Narendra Modi government, both infrastructure development and the establishment of high-altitude infantry divisions are a higher priority. The Indian Army recognises that the existing infrastructure deficit means that China can more rapidly mobilise infantry from greater distances within the country to the border. It understands that it can counteract this vulnerability by maintaining a robust quantitative advantage through permanent deployment of troops along the Line of Actual Control. In a crisis, the Indian Army also understands the necessity for earlier mobilisation to prepare for a possible escalation.
India’s ability to countervail perceived Chinese infrastructure advantages cannot begin and end with its military posture alone. The bulk of required roads along the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control have yet to be constructed, suggesting that the immediate benefits for India can come through infrastructure development. In the meantime, the Indian Army will have to retain its forward posture and maintain readiness for high-altitude combat.
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