Is China militarizing its border with India?
China's intensified development of military infrastructure on the Indian border suggests a shift in Beijing's approach to territorial disputes, forcing New Delhi to rethink its national security posture. China is expanding and upgrading a large number of military facilities along its entire border with India as tensions continue to run high in the wake of the bloody clash between Indian and Chinese forces in June, followed by the reported exchange of gunfire in late August.
New Delhi has struggled to come to terms with these recent escalations, but the new strategic reality created by Beijing's permanent infrastructure drive will nonetheless force New Delhi to shape its future defense posture around long-term outlooks of China's growing capabilities in its border regions.
China's construction drive projects a future military capability that will see long-term regional tensions with India sustained beyond the two countries' recent standoffs. The 2017 Doklam crisis appears to have shifted China's strategic objectives, with China more than doubling its total number of air bases, air defense positions, and heliports near the Indian border over the past three years. The rapid expansion of permanent Chinese military infrastructure points to intentions that span a wider timeframe than current and recent border standoffs.
China's strategy aims to confront India with an insurmountable challenge in territorial disputes by leaning on broad support capabilities that provide Beijing with a tremendous ability to mobilize forces into disputed border areas. Such an approach is similar to China's strategy in the South China Sea, where a buildup of permanent defense facilities supports Chinese localized military superiority and significantly raises the potential cost of military opposition to Beijing's maritime claims in the region.
In applying this same strategy on the Indian border, China aims to discourage Indian resistance or military action during future border disputes by ostentatiously demonstrating its ability and intent to engage in military confrontations.
China's current emphasis on air power, in particular, also enables it to project military strength deep into the complex Himalayan terrain by exploiting existing gaps in India's capabilities. A significant portion of Beijing's recent infrastructure developments is aimed directly at strengthening its ability to project air power along the entire Indian border at a time when New Delhi itself is struggling to rebuild its air power.
Additional air bases, runways and air defense sites would all help China achieve air superiority over disputed areas in future conflicts, as well as provide cover to ground movements to stake actual territorial claims.
By forcing India to respond in kind, China's aggressive strategy is leading to a greater concentration of military assets in heavily disputed areas along the border that could raise the risk of potential escalations and sustained conflict. The ongoing escalation in the Ladakh border region has started to formulate an Indian response to the broader strategic threat posed by China's ongoing military infrastructure drive.
India's Ministry of Defense announced on Sept. 14 that it will build six new runways and 22 military helicopter facilities across Ladakh. While these new developments are geographically focused on the region of current tensions, Chinese activity across India's entire border will likely drive future expansions of Indian military infrastructure near disputed borders at Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh.
New Delhi will also continue to upgrade its overall military capabilities, particularly in those fields where capability gaps exist vis-a-vis China, such as air power, ground-based air defenses and missile forces. Efforts by both India and China to translate these capabilities into dominance during future border disputes will increase the possibility of direct confrontations.
And with strong logistical structures supporting frontline forces on both sides, such incidents could rapidly devolve into greater military engagements between the two nuclear-armed neighbors.