There are ominous signs that China is bolstering its military presence in a remote corner of the country that could lead to more bloodshed on its border with India.
Images have emerged which purport to show construction work at an air base in the Chinese city of Hotan. The base is within striking distance of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), a disputed frontier between China and India.
There is now talk of a prolonged “standoff” between the nuclear armed powers with voices in China saying “not an inch of territory” can be lost.
Beijing and New Delhi have long squabbled about where the border lies along the desolate Himalayas mountain range. This has often led to accusations from either side that troops have crossed the boundary line, even though its exact point has never been agreed upon.
Those disagreements turned deadly in June when at least 20 Indian soldiers and possibly as many as 40 Chinese troops were killed, some brutally, following an argument over the position of a newly-installed Chinese border post.
Despite China’s military being larger than India’s overall, New Delhi is thought to have the upper hand in the Himalayas with more jets based closer to the border than China.
Earlier this month, New Delhi is believed to have rushed 800 troops to the Indian side of Pangong Lake in response to incursions by Beijing’s forces.
Late last week, Indian publication India Today reported that construction was being “accelerated” at the civil and military airport in Hotan which lies some 380km north of Pangong Lake, a mountainous lake dissected by the LAC. Hotan is within the Xinjiang province where Beijing has been accused of locking up ethnic Uighurs in “re-eduction camps”.
“The latest satellite images clearly show that grading work for two new airstrips began in the end of June,” said the report in Indian media.
“A new large possibly depot-level ammunition storage area suddenly cropped up in the month of July, and the plinth work of these ammunition buildings seems to be going on as of September 3.”
The publication also said it was likely new barracks were being constructed.
It added that it was possible the upgrade was linked to the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force, which is the Chinese military unit responsible for conventional and nuclear missiles.
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The claims cannot be verified. However, Google Maps images, likely to be have been captured earlier than the satellite photos, do not show the runway works, suggesting they may be relatively recent additions.
“The Chinese intentions to prolong the standoff are extremely clear with such constructions indicating that the PLA is not going back from the area in Pangong Lake unless thrown out by the Indian armed forces,” wrote Vinayak Bhat, who used to serve in the Indian Army.
In July, another report by India Today, said Beijing had “activated” Hotan, its nearest air base to the conflict zone, and it was now one of the largest bases in the nation’s west.
A regiment of China’s Shenyang J-811 fighter jets is now said to be stationed there. However, the base was lacking in hardened aircraft shelters and the ammunition dumps needed to operate at full pelt.
The feud over the expansive 4000km long border goes back many decades. In recent years there has been particular focus on the area that divides India’s Ladakh province from the Aksai Chin region which is governed by China.
Any infrastructure work by either side – such as the building of new roads – is seen as deeply provocative by the other and a possible attempt to nab some extra territory.
The pair went to war over the region in 1962 which led to thousands of deaths but until June no blood had been spilt since 1975.
The June incident occurred at the confluence of the Galwan and Shyok rivers, close to the LAC, where a “buffer zone” had been agreed upon, according to media reports.
An initial argument turned brutal with reports of sticks, clubs, bats and bamboo poles with nails in them being used in the clash.
While the situation has now calmed, there have been ongoing accusations of military incursions across the LAC. It comes as Chinese-Indian relations have fallen to a low ebb, with India even banning popular Chinese app TikTok.
A report earlier this year from Harvard University’s Belfer Centre said India had the military advantage.
Both sides had similar manpower, but Indian troops had more combat experience given skirmishes with Pakistan.
Another drawback for China was it had neglected its bases close to the Himalayas as it shored up facilities in the face of perceived threats in other parts of the country.
Since the 1962 war, India has built up more air strips in the Himalayas leaving Chinese jets having to fly farther from fewer bases to reach the combat zone.
RHETORIC REMAINS TENSE
Both sides are officially talking peace with Indian and Chinese defence ministers meeting in Moscow last week.
But on the sidelines, the rhetoric remains high.
On the weekend, China’s Communist Party aligned Global Times newspaper said: “India bears full responsibility for the current China-India border tensions and China’s military is fully determined, capable and confident to safeguard China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and not an inch of Chinese territory can be lost.”
India has denied it was the one that’s been trespassing on foreign territory.
Nonetheless, The Global Times said “India‘s aggressive moves” had “forced” the PLA to build up its forces in due to the prospect of a “potential long-term standoff”.
“China has deployed more forces with more advanced weapons to the region including anti-air troops, artillery troops and air force with more advanced fighter jets, and if India dares to further escalate the tensions, the PLA can seize air-domination and cause immediate and significant damage to Indian troops.”