China Digs its Heels in – in Ladakh and Elsewhere

In a sign that China-India tensions across the entire 3488-kilometer Line of Actual Control (LAC) are here to stay despite periodic optimism that a resolution to the Ladakh standoff is imminent, news reports in Indian media in the past few days suggest that China has not only dug its heels in in Ladakh, but has also increased military activity on its side of the LAC in Arunachal Pradesh and elsewhere. Additional reports now also corroborate the claim that China has also continued with construction activity near the Bhutan-China-India trijunction, the site of the 2017 Doklam standoff.

A Hindustan Times report on November 19, based on Indian military sources, noted that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is also not letting up pressure in Ladakh. Indian military commanders told the newspaper the “PLA is constructing more than 10 dugouts each at Samar Lungpa, 30km east of Karakoram Pass; and at Mount Sajum, south of Rechin La. It is also increasing troop deployment at Qizil Jilga, 70 [kilometers] east of Daulet Beg Oldi (DBO).” Notably, the Indian airbase in DBO would be crucial for New Delhi in any military operation against China, given its proximity to the Karakoram Pass.

On November 20, a separate Hindustan Times article, again based on sources in the Indian security establishment, noted that the PLA has been constructing roads and new temporary housing for troops across the central sector of the LAC, along the Indian states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. The report also notes the deployment of an electronic warfare unit, equipped with counterspace and other capabilities, at Nyanglu, a village 60 kilometers across the LAC in Arunachal Pradesh, along with deployment of new missile transporter erector launchers in the Kashgar air base in Xinjiang in the rear. The Sikkim sector is also seeing increasing deployment of PLA military drones at the Hoping airbase in Shigatse, the Hindustan Times report notes.

Finally, an NDTV report on November 22 notes the PLA constructing a road nine kilometers inside Bhutanese territory on the banks of the Torsa River which, when completed, will give it an alternative route to the Zompelri ridge. In 2017, Indian forces had prevented a different PLA road construction project in the area, which too would have allowed it access to the ridge and bring it closer to the Indian army position in Doklam.

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In the event of a war, such construction can enable China to try and cut off India’s northeast from the rest of the country, through an assault on the “Chicken’s Neck,” a tiny sliver of land that links the two. The NDTV report, based on satellite images obtained from Maxarr Technologies, confirms and adds to a claim first made by Shen Shiwei, a China Global Television Network producer, on Twitter on November 19 around a new Chinese settlement two kilometers inside Bhutanese territory.

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Interestingly, Bhutan’s ambassador to India contradicted Shen’s assertion at the time. According to a Maxarr statement quoted by NDTV, “There has clearly been significant construction activity this year all along the Torsa River valley area with extensive road-building/construction activity underway as well as new military storage bunkers being built in China near the Doklam area.”

At the time of the India-China military disengagement in Doklam in 2017, many analysts pointed out that its terms were narrow and technical. Since then, reports have periodically surfaced that show that the PLA’s construction activity in the region is very much still on.