China’s Infrastructure Developments Near the LAC and Lessons for the Philippines
Photo Source: Xinhua
The construction of a major 67.22-kilometer-long highway connecting Pad Township in Nyingchi city with Baibung in Medog County was recently completed. The project, built by the China Huaneng Group Co., Ltd., took nearly seven years to complete with an estimated investment of around USD 310 million. Despite emphasizing its economic components, the highway’s strategic and geopolitical properties are clearly visible. This development will have serious implications for the overall power competition between India and China along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
The recently completed highway significantly cuts the distance between Nyingchi and Baibung from the regular 346 kilometers to 180 kilometers; moreover, it also greatly reduces travel time by eight hours. What is crucial to highlight is that Medog County is strategically positioned in the southeast of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), where the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh lies to its south. Nyingchi, on the other hand, is located nearly 16 kilometers from the LAC. Moreover, it lies to the north of India’s Tuting sector in the Upper Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh (nearly 40 kilometers from the border in Arunachal Pradesh).
Nyingchi is a town that is home to the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) 52nd and 53rd Mountain Infantry Brigades. In addition, Nyingchi’s airport is also a dual-use airport which continues to witness increasing activities and upgrades. In 2006, the completion of a railway line linking Golmud in Qinghai to Lhasa served as a major infrastructural milestone for China. In 2014, track tests were completed for the Qinghai-Tibet Railway’s spur line from Lhasa to Shigatse. China is now linking Chengdu in Sichuan with Lhasa by rail, which is eventually planned to run through Nyingchi.
China has also built a network of highways across Tibet with links to Nyingchi. A 409-kilometers long expressway was built linking Lhasa with Nyingchi, which reduced travel time from eight to five hours. Furthermore, the completion of this strategic highway, along with the network of other projects, will greatly improve overland connectivity infrastructure to Nyingchi and Medog County, which will enable the PLA to swiftly mobilize to the LAC at a time of conflict between India and China.
Among the most critical targets during such an event will be the state of Arunachal Pradesh. During the 1962 war with India, China occupied territory in Arunachal Pradesh – which was then a part of the North-East Frontier Agency of India – but ended up withdrawing. Today, China claims approximately 90,000 square kilometers of territory of Indian territory in the Eastern Sector of the India-China boundary in Arunachal Pradesh, which it calls “South Tibet”.
China has been steadfast in using infrastructure development to safeguard its claims in Indian territory. In January 2021, it was reported that a Chinese village in Arunachal Pradesh was constructed. Satellite images showed that the village was located on the banks of the River Tsari Chu in Upper Subansiri District, some 4.5 kilometers inside Indian territory. This news led to anti-China protests in Arunachal Pradesh. Additionally, the All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union (AAPSU) condemned China’s expansionist moves.
With pressure amounting due to China’s territory expansion, India has taken countermeasures to balance China’s assertive actions. In May, The Arunachal Pradesh government has decided to develop three villages along the state’s border with China as a measure to “check against any foreign misadventure”. This decision was announced by deputy chief minister-cum-finance minister Chowna Mein while tabling the state’s annual budget in the Arunachal Pradesh assembly.
“I am happy to announce a major initiative to develop three model villages on a pilot basis in the Indo-Tibet China border areas, one each in eastern, central and western part of the state. I propose to earmark a fund of ₹30 crore for the same,” the budget speech read.
“These model villages would serve as pilot projects which will be further expanded to cover many more such villages. The scheme would encompass innovative ways to dovetail socio-economic cultural needs of village life while establishing the model villages,” it added.
India has also stepped up construction of roads near the LAC. There are currently three major roads in the pipeline: the Arunachal Frontier Highway, the Trans-Arunachal Highway, and the Arunachal East-West Corridor. However, the processes for these projects are still in their early stages. Furthermore, with the devastating effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on India’s economy, progress will most likely slow down.
China’s dissatisfaction with the LAC and its ambition to revise the status quo has also transcended beyond the border and into the Indian Ocean, where it is locked in a broader power competition with India to project power and to maximize influence. The Indian Ocean takes up center stage in global geopolitics due to its vital sea lanes of communication (SLOCs) and maritime chokepoints. Moreover, with China increasing its strategic engagements with the littoral countries of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), India will need to recalibrate its regional policies to maintain its position as status-quo power.
First, India must continue to prioritize the modernization of its navy. Particular attention must be given towards aerial and surface surveillance. In addition, anti-submarine warfare should also be emphasized due to the current state of the Indian Navy’s submarines. China’s naval expansion into the Indian Ocean entails a distinct dimension of submarine deployment.
Second, India must play a more robust leadership role within existing regional security frameworks in the IOR. India must create an atmosphere where resident states take primary responsibility for security in the region while recognizing the stakes of others at the same time. India has taken the driver seat in establishing such frameworks; however, it must remain consistent to maximize its leadership role.
Third, India must engage proactively with its neighbors in its immediate geographical neighborhood to enhance coordination and establish mutual trust especially in matters involving regional security. India must step-up the facilitation and activation of its defense lines of credit to Bangladesh, Mauritius, Seychelles, Sri Lanka, which continue to be either stalled or underutilized. Furthermore, the completion maritime surveillance projects in Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius, and Seychelles will also be just as critical. Additionally, India must bank on sub-regional arrangements such as the India-Sri Lanka-Maldives trilateral, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), and the Indian Ocean Commission (IOC).
Last, India must continue to solidify extra-regional partnerships with like-minded states that share a similar strategic interest in maintaining the status-quo in the IOR. This includes the members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) and European powers such as France and Germany.
India’s experience with China vis-à-vis the latter’s expansion and rapid strategic infrastructure developments along the LAC should serve as points of reflection for smaller countries in China’s geographic periphery such as the Philippines, which also continues to be pushed into compromising its legitimate claims in the South China Sea. China’s reclamation of artificial islands and construction of military infrastructure in the disputed waters is a similar strategy utilized by the Northeast Asian giant along the border with India to significantly alter the balance of power. This is enough reason for alarm bells to sound for Manila.
Given India’s experience, the Philippines must realize that it cannot be “business as usual” with a neighbor that intends to unilaterally alter the region’s geopolitical architecture. Accordingly, the Philippines must continue to enhance its naval capacity to safeguard its legitimate claims in the South China Sea. Moreover, despite the clear asymmetry in economic and military capabilities with China, intra-regional coordination and extra-regional partnerships must be tapped by Manila to maximize its ability to secure its national interests and territorial integrity. Furthermore, banking on instruments of international law such as the 2016 Arbitration Ruling should be highly considered and consistently applied given its ability to indirectly confront China’s revisionist ambitions.
Don McLain Gill is a resident fellow at the International Development and Security Cooperation (IDSC) and Director for South Asia and Southeast Asia at the Philippine-Middle East Studies Association (PMESA). He is currently completing his master’s in International Studies at the University of the Philippines Diliman. He has written extensively on issues of South Asian geopolitics and Indian foreign policy.