China reinforces Tibet with Military Installations
09 Dec 2020, 02:27 GMT+10
Hong Kong, December 8 (ANI): China continues to make Tibet and the Indian border one of its priorities for military and infrastructure development. Nearly six months since the bloody fracas in the Galwan Valley, and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) gives no indication it wishes to return to the status quo.
Even with Eastern Ladakh now truly seized by winter, the Sino-Indian standoff there continues. Despite eight rounds of military talks, there has been no breakthrough, no concessions by China, as thousands of soldiers on both sides hunker down.
Yet China has been far from passive. New construction and deployments are occurring, and the country is co-opting various “civilian” means of exerting pressure on India along the border.
The Belfer Center for Scientific and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School in the USA estimated about 200,000 to 230,000 PLA troops were in the Western Theater Command before June’s Eastern Ladakh tensions erupted. Frank O’Donnell and Alexander Bollfrass authored a report pointing out that China’s apparent numerical near-equivalence with Indian ground forces along the border was actually misleading.
They wrote: “Even in a war with India, a significant proportion of these forces will be unavailable, reserved either for Russian taskings or for countering insurrection in Xinjiang and Tibet. The majority of forces are located farther from the Indian border, posing a striking contrast with the majority of forward-deployed Indian forces with a single China defense mission.”The Belfer Center members estimate there are approximately 40,000 PLA troops in Tibet itself. “This means that China is regularly operating with a permanent Indian conventional force advantage along its border areas. In the event of a major standoff or conflict with India, it would have to rely upon mobilization, primarily from Xinjiang and secondarily from the Western Theater Command forces deeper in China’s interior.”The report claims there are 157 Chinese fighters plus 52 drones (such as the Wing Loong 1 and EA-03) in the Western Theater Command. Yet some of these assets are reserved for the Russian front.
Furthermore, “The high altitude of Chinese air bases in Tibet and Xinjiang, plus the generally difficult geographic and weather conditions of the region, means that Chinese fighters are limited to carrying around half their design payload and fuel. In-flight refueling would be required for PLAAF [PLA Air Force] forces to maximize their strike capacity.” The PLAAF has so few aerial refuellers in service (although it is currently developing a Y-20-based variant), so this remains a hard ask.
Furthermore, PLAAF bases nearest Tibet are at risk of attack by India. Incapacitation of these bases (e.g. Hotan, Lhasa/Gonggar) would force China to rely on rear-area bases. O’Donnell and Bollfrass explained, “In sum, India has a stronger regional air position, with a large number of airfields in the east and west, so even if some airfields are down, operations can continue from other locations.”Given this is the case, we can expect to see more air base hardening by the PLAAF in Tibet, much as it has been doing in eastern bases facing Taiwan and US bases in Asia.
The authors continued: “To address its force shortfalls in the event of war, China could surge air and ground forces from its interior toward the border. However, what our analysis suggests is that the IAF’s superiority would mean that critical logistical routes – such as air bases and military road and rail links – could be cut by bombing or standoff missile strikes, limiting the extent to which China’s position could be reinforced. Such a Chinese surge would also attract attention from the United States, which would alert India and enable it to counter-mobilize its own additional forces from its interior.”They concluded, “China could permanently station forces similar to or larger than India’s nearer to the border. An Indian counter-build-up would surely follow. In total, India is in a stronger conventional position vis-a-vis China than much of the analysis on this topic concludes.”However, these comments refer to all-out war, and such a scenario is less likely than the kind of tensions that have occurred at Galwan or Lake Pangong. In the latter cases, the PLA needs suitable military bases, infrastructure and logistics routes in and out of Tibet. Therefore, what we are seeing there accords well with such ambitions.
For instance, one interesting deployment is an HQ-16 medium