China, India Move Tens of Thousands of Troops to the Border in Largest Buildup in Decades

China, India Move Tens of Thousands of Troops to the Border in Largest Buildup in Decades

Both countries have built new infrastructure to support larger deployments and positioned advanced military equipment in the region

China and India have sent tens of thousands of soldiers and advanced military equipment to their disputed border, as troop deployments in the region reach the highest level in decades.

The People’s Liberation Army has gradually increased its troop presence, mostly over the past few months, to at least 50,000, up from about 15,000 at this time last year, according to Indian intelligence and military officials. Those moves have been matched by India, which has sent tens of thousands of its own troops and advanced artillery to the region, the officials said.

Both countries have built up infrastructure at the border in recent months, including insulated cabins and huts to keep troops stationed there through the frigid Himalayan winters.

Much of the military buildup has occurred in eastern Ladakh, a region that overlaps with Kashmir and Tibet. The deadliest confrontation between the two countries in decades occurred there last June in the Galwan Valley, where 20 Indian and four Chinese soldiers were killed.

Chinese security forces, which usually go to the Tibet Autonomous Region for annual summer training under the PLA’s western theater command, recently participated in high-altitude drills focused on combat with sophisticated weapons. Indian officials said they fear that China is using the drills this year as cover to move more troops to the region permanently.

China has moved advanced surface-to-air missiles to the region, the officials said, including its HQ-9 system, which is similar to Russia’s S-300 and America’s Patriot antimissile batteries.

The country’s army has built hundreds of new structures to support troops at military encampments at the towns of Rudok, in Tibet’s Ladakh frontier, and Kangxiwar, which is north of a plateau controlled by China, known as Aksai Chin, that connects Tibet with the Xinjiang region.

China has dug underground bunkers and tunnels and built small hydroelectric power stations and solar panels, the officials said. They have installed portable cabins and huts for troops, helipads and field hospitals.

At the Rudok camp, about 20 permanent and temporary camps have been set up to house 15,000 to 18,000 troops, the Indian officials said. Previously, the camp’s capacity was limited to about 5,000.

A spokesman for China’s foreign ministry said the situation on the border is stable and controllable and that the two countries were preparing for another round of military talks to help ease the tensions. “China believes that any arms race and infrastructure construction aimed at military control are not conducive to the maintenance of peace and tranquility in the border areas,” the spokesman said.

India has been making its own push to fortify its positions, building roads, tunnels and insulated facilities to house its troops through the winter.

India has also been boosting the ability of its air force to patrol the border. Last September, its air force created a squadron of 18 jet fighters based in Ambala, a city in the northern state of Haryana. Some of the jet fighters have been deployed for sorties in eastern Ladakh, according to current and former Indian military officials. India’s air force is planning a second squadron in the state of West Bengal at Hasimara air base, near another contested area of the border.

A spokesman for India’s Ministry of External Affairs didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

D.S. Hooda, a former lieutenant general of the Indian army, said the development of Chinese military infrastructure in Tibet was largely focused on housing additional troops and improving infrastructure at airfields to support combat air operations. “This was a known weakness of the Chinese which is now being strengthened,” he said.

China and India have never settled on an actual border. The two countries are separated along their 2,000-mile border by a vague demarcation line, known as the Line of Actual Control.

Generally, India sees its control extending to where the Chinese withdrew at the end of a 1962 war between the two countries. China sees its control extending to what Chinese troops held in 1959 before the war. In the east, China continues to claim what India considers a full-fledged state, Arunachal Pradesh, and in the west, the Aksai Chin plateau.

The two countries have at times kept rules in place in an effort to keep border skirmishes between troops from escalating. Troops stationed at the border were prohibited from carrying guns, for example. That rule was changed last year to give commanders on the ground more flexibility to make decisions, after the brutal clash in June, when troops fought each other with batons and clubs wrapped in barbed wire. In hand-to-hand combat, some soldiers fell off cliffs into a river.

The latest buildup risks triggering further clashes between the countries as their troops jockey for positions. India’s construction of a road to an airport was a contributing factor to last year’s deadly clash. After it was built, Chinese troops began occupying part of the Galwan Valley to gain access to peaks overlooking the new road.

India and China have held about a dozen rounds of talks between military and diplomatic officials since the confrontation last year in an effort to de-escalate tensions. Those talks led to the pullback of troops from both sides at one friction point at Pangong Tso, a glacial lake at an altitude of about 14,000 feet. Nonetheless, troops have remained stationed at bases that can reach the front line in a matter of hours.

The recent buildup shows that the talks have done little to ease the broader tensions between the two nuclear-armed countries or limit the risk of further clashes.

“Disengagement from all friction points followed by de-escalation and a commitment to maintain peace and tranquility along the border is the way forward to resolve the standoff and improve bilateral relations,” said S.L. Narasimhan, a member of India’s national security advisory board.

The military positioning on the ground also factors into each side’s hand in future talks. “China is reminding India that this dispute is unlikely to be settled purely through dialogue. India will need to bring bargaining chips to the dialogue like it did in 2020 by occupying strategic heights and showing China it will not shy away from combat,” said Sreeram Chaulia, dean at O.P. Jindal Global University’s School of International Affairs, in Sonipat, India.

Mr. Chaulia said those chips could include putting more barriers in place to Chinese imports and investments or coordinating with other members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue—the U.S., Japan and Australia—on more regular patrols in the South and East China seas and the Indo-Pacific.

S. Dinny, a former Indian army colonel who commanded an infantry battalion from 2015 to 2017 near the Line of Actual Control, said the increase of Chinese infrastructure since last year was a deliberate attempt by the PLA to send a message to the world that it can’t be bogged down and continues to do whatever it intends to, despite the fact that it had to pull back forces from Pangong Tso.

“The Chinese also need to take care of their operational needs and not be taken off guard as India has been rapidly ramping up its infrastructure and force deployment in recent months,” he said.

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