Despite the recent bonhomie exhibited at Wuhan meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping in April last year, China is quietly stepping up of military deployments and capabilities in Tibet with the intention to fight a war.
Firstly, after the late 2015 reorganisation of the armed forces (PLA) was announced, Chengdu Military Region (which has operational jurisdiction over most borders with India) and the Lanzhou Military Region (which has jurisdiction over Aksai Chin) were merged into the Western Theatre Command.
All provincial military commands were integrated with National Defence Mobilisation Department of the Central Military Commission, except for Tibet Military Command which was brought under the jurisdiction of the PLA. Instead of focusing on militia, reserves and conscription work, this elevation in rank for Tibet-based forces meant acquiring combat roles, and prepare for any conflict with India. More resources are pouring in for this command as a result of this new elevated status for this military command and is also reflected in the stepped up border transgressions with India.
Secondly, a number of new military equipment deployments are taking place in Tibet in the recent past. The official press in China had highlighted these with specific mention of their possible role in any emerging conflict with India. The recent official revelation that China began deploying 50 km range laser-guided and satellite guided PLC-181 vehicle mounted howitzers in Tibet opposite to Sikkim and other areas, has hogged the headlines. There are other weapon systems to be deployed to Tibet according to the Chinese press. These include, plans to deploy the 32 tonne, 105 millimetre gun T-15 light tank that can be easily transported; a new LW-30 laser defense weapon system that can detect and strike low, slow and small targets including unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).
In the light of India acquiring UAVs from the US, China appears to be already putting the anti-dotes. For more offensive missions, for patrols on Indian borders and for counter-terrorism missions the Chengdu-based units are developing GJ-2 medium-to-high altitude armed unmanned reconnaissance aerial vehicle with 370 kmph, 20-hour endurance, synthetic aperture radar and an electro-optical pod and carrying 12 small missiles.
Other equipment details as well are significant. China recently unveiled a 10-tonne Z-20 medium lift helicopter to be deployed to Tibet. The Y-9 transports are deployed to the frontier areas for early warning, surveillance and transport duties. More spectacular is the information that Y-20 strategic transport aircrafts (with maximum payload capacity of 66 tonnes and a range of 3,700 km) were commissioned in 2016 while the stealth fighter J-20 in 2017 after testing in the Tibetan high altitude. More alarming was the January 10, 2019, China Central TV report that DF-26 manoeuvrable re-entry missile system has been deployed to the northwest for training purposes. Its 4,000 km range is meant for attacking United States aircraft carriers in the Taiwan Straits or South China Sea but hypothetically applicable to Indian aircraft carriers as well. This is in addition to the DF-21 medium-range missiles deployed in Da Qaidam, Xiao Qaidam and Delingha.
The People’s Daily had reported that theses missiles are rail-mobile in Tibet. Thirdly, rapid deployment of the military equipment needs airfields, roads and railways. Tibet has five airfields, four highways and one railway. China is ramping up the construction for further integration and plans to project its power into South Asia. China constructed 96,000 km of roads in Tibet by 2018, with over 4,000 km of highways added a year since 2012.
The 409-kilometer Lhasa-Nyingchi Highway (north of Arunachal Pradesh) built at a cost of $5.8 billion, was commissioned in 2017. A 135 km Yaán-Kangding expressway was constructed at a cost of $3.3 billion making its second expressway from Sichuan to connect to Tibet after the National Highway 318 which links up with Lhasa. In addition, apart from the Gormud to Lhasa railway line commissioned in 2006, China began construction of the 435 km Lhasa-Nyingchi railway line, to be completed by 2021. In 2019, China plans to launch a 1,700 km Sichuan to Tibet railway at a cost of $36 billion connecting through areas bordering Arunachal Pradesh and to be completed by 2026. Beidou navigation system is now available all across Tibet both for the civilians and the military. Besides, the Ngari Space Observatory – next to Ladakh – was launched in 2010.
It now has eight astronomical telescopes of higher diameters. Quantum experiments are being conducted here. Apart from the 30 million tourists in 2018 who had utilised these infrastructure projects in Tibet, resulting in revenue earnings of over $7 billion, the PLA is one of the main beneficiaries of the construction work on the roof of the world. The massive construction work has its own flip side. According to Chinese Academy of Sciences, Tibetan glaciers have shrunk over 15 percent in the past five decades.
Fourthly, to enhance the combat missions that the Tibet Military Command is recently tasked with, training and military exercises have been increasing in the region recently. President Xi himself had ordered the PLA to enhance training missions in his new year message recently. On an average the Western Theatre Command in Chengdu conducts over 15 small, medium and large scale exercises a year. The recent ones have become more intensive and India-focused. In December 2018, the armed police conducted a counter-terrorism campaign in Tibet in “intensive warlike confrontations”.
China and India both have highlighted strategic communications, confidence building measures, hotlines between the militaries and the like. Both have conducted the 7th hand-in-hand joint counter-terrorism drill in Chengdu in last month. However, the above preparations suggest to possible border contingencies for the near future. With the United States passing the law of Reciprocal Access to Tibet on December 19, 2018, and the emerging tariff wars between the US and China, and self-immolation incidents, Tibet region has all the elements in getting embroiled in heightened tensions in the near future. India needs to gear up for all contingencies.