Dragonâ€™s teeth Growing threat: China drew the first blood by fortifying Tibet EXCLUSIVE COVER STORY China sees red over India securing Tawang, looks to attack where it hurts the mostâ€”Kashmir By R. Prasannan It is back to eyeball-to-eyeball, barrel-to-barrel and bayonet-to-bayonet on the India-China border. Narasimha Raoâ€™s 1993 agreement on border peace and tranquillity is dead. So is the 1995 agreement to pull back from Sumdorong Chu, as well as the 1996 agreement on military confidence-building. These agreements had enabled the Indian Army to move several divisions from the China border and deploy them in the Kashmir Valley to fight insurgents. It also enabled China to focus less on military matters, make economic progress, show a soft face to the world, host the Olympics and gain global prestige. Kashmir is secure and the Olympics over. Both countries are currently on a military-building spree over the Himalayas. Indeed, China drew the first blood by building rail lines, roads and airfields so that it can quickly move huge divisions into Tibet from where they can pulverise the frontiers of India. Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, with its politically sensitive monastery which the Chinese have always coveted, looked particularly vulnerable. India has been paying back in the same coin, building border roads for quick troop movement, upgrading airfields in Ladakh and helipads in Arunachal, raising new Army divisions, redeploying an entire corps, and even giving wings to entire brigades for heli-lift. Operation Falcon, Indira Gandhiâ€™s 15-year border militarisation programme launched in 1980 and given up in 1993, has been re-started under another name. With the result that Arunachal, especially Tawang, is today an Indian fortress, or a windmill which would be quixotic for the Chinese to tilt at. A frustrated China, therefore, is seeking out another Achillesâ€™ heel in Kashmirâ€™s Ladakh. Recent Chinese actions against Kashmir and Ladakh are evidence of this frustration, say senior Indian Army officers. Militarily, there were a series of Chinese border intrusions in Ladakh last year. Diplomatically, China altered its public posture on Kashmir from â€˜hands-offâ€™ (even during Kargil war, China refused to help Pakistan) to a declaration that Kashmir is â€˜disputed territoryâ€™. Adding insult, Beijing even offered to mediate on Kashmir between India and Pakistan. Then it offered to host Hurriyat chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq in China and began issuing visas to Kashmiris on loose sheets, indicating that Beijing does not recognise their Indian passports and nationality. The latest: China denied visa to Indiaâ€™s Kashmir commander, Lt.-Gen. B.S. Jaswal, who was to visit Beijing on a mutually agreed confidence-building military visit. Simultaneously, it moved a battalion of troops into Khunjerab Pass in Pakistan-held Gilgit-Baltistan, ostensibly to help Pakistan combat the floods, but probably to build a rail line that would take Chinese goods to Pakistanâ€™s ports and Chinese troops to the doors of Siachen. From there, the troops could threaten the Indian sources of several rivers that flow into Pakistan. All of a sudden, the Indian Army in Ladakh is finding the Chinese on three sidesâ€”Aksai Chin in the east which China occupied in 1962, Xinjiang in the north and Gilgit-Baltistan in the west annexed by Pakistan in 1947-48. The Chinese build-up around Ladakh, India believes, is a tit-for-tat for Indiaâ€™s fortressing Arunachal which, in turn, had been done in response to the Chinese build-up in Tibet. Chinaâ€™s People's Liberation Army (PLA) had moved troops into Tibet following the anti-Beijing riots in March 2008. Hundreds of armoured vehicles, fit for fighting regular military battles, poured into Tibet from the Leshan-(Sichuan province) based 149 Division through the newly built Qinghai-Tibet rail line. More of them drove in through the Sichuan-Tibet Highway. Most of the troops returned after shooting the rioters, but the 149 Divisionâ€™s 52 and 53 Brigades have since been converted into rapidly mobile units which can be deployed in Tibetâ€™s southern frontiers (bordering India) within 48 hours. Next, the PLA moved to acquire a capability to rail-move its 61 and 149 Rapid Action Divisions into Tibet. Sensing trouble, the Indian defence ministry permitted the Indian Air Force (IAF) to move a squadron of Sukhoi-30MKI warjets from their Pune base to Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh from where they can strike deep into Tibet and even mainland China. And early this year, the 30 squadron of Sukhois flew into Tezpur in Assam and parked themselves there, just in case. The presence of Sukhois rattled China. It suddenly realised that its rail line into Tibet, a military engineering marvel (runs at 4,200 metres from sea level, and so the crew and passengers need to be acclimatised for the journey), is vulnerable to interdiction bombing by Sukhois. It also realised that roads were safer for troop movement during war than trains. So Beijing embarked on a programme of upgrading its highways into Tibet, especially National Highway 318 which connects Linzhi (where the 52 Mechanised Brigade is stationed) to Lhasa, the Qinghai-Tibet Highway and the Sichuan-Tibet Highway. The development was noted by the defence ministry. â€œ...There is a feeling,â€ Defence Secretary Pradeep Kumar told Parliamentâ€™s standing committee on defence in a classic understatement, â€œthat our neighbouring country, China, has been able to build up a very good infrastructureâ€ close to the Indian borders. China has also been enhancing its strike power in Tibet. The Indian Army believes that the PLA can move one full mechanised infantry division into Tibet in 48 hours in an emergency, and about 10 divisions in one month for a permanent base. More worryingly, in its largest ever tactical exercises (code-named Stride) last year, the PLA demonstrated awesome airlift capability. As per the Indian Armyâ€™s assessment, China today can airdrop an infantry brigade of 3,000-plus in one airlift and an entire infantry division of about 15,000 troops and their equipment in a single operation. In addition, China is also learnt to have raised a rapid deployment force (called Emergency-Resolving Mobile Combat Force) which can induct four divisions on any stretch of its frontier (or enemy territory) on a dayâ€™s notice. Plus, the PLAâ€™s logistics management has been tuned in such a way as to gain a capability to move 20 to 25 divisions over two months. Most of these capabilities were proven in Stride-2009 in which 50,000 troops were moved across 1,600km by road, rail and air from the military districts of Shenyang, Lanzhou, Jinan and Guangzhou. Stride-2009 was essentially aimed at proving the PLAâ€™s ability to mobilise in real time. However, what alarmed India was the simultaneous building of advance infrastructure in Tibet so that nearly 25 divisions could be moved into Tibet at short notice. China had three main airfields in Tibetâ€”Kongka, Hoping and Pangta. However, in the months prior to Stride-2009, China built or operationalised two more around Lhasa, and four more elsewhere in Tibet, thus giving them nine airfields to land troops and support fighter operations. And about two months ago, China even exercised a few squadrons of Sukhois and J1s over Tibet. â€œExercising them over Tibet has other implications,â€ said an IAF officer. â€œYou cannot have a sustained exercise programme without having built massive ground support system. Thus even if China is not basing advanced fighters in Tibet as of now, they have all the ground systems in place. They can move in the aircraft in a matter of two hours now.â€ More worrying has been the recent integration of their non-nuclear strategic missiles with their military area commands. India has kept its non-nuclear missile regiments (such as 333) under a separate command so that battalion or brigade commanders are not tempted to use them in the event of minor battlefield reverses. China, however, has integrated them into their area commands which signals that their use in battle is being left to the judgment of middle-level commanders. All these military posturings, which have been evolving over the last two years, have been â€˜doctrinisedâ€™ in the White Paper that China published on January 20, 2009, the day Barack Obama was inaugurated in Washington. The White Paper talked of a new doctrine called â€˜active defenceâ€™ aimed at â€œwinning local wars in conditions of informationisation [sic].... This guideline lays stress on deterring crises and wars.... It calls for the building of a lean and effective deterrent force and the flexible use of different means of deterrence.â€ Indian defence ministry reacted with unprecedented alacrity. It sought permission to restart Operation Falconâ€”programme to build border roads and other infrastructure for quick military movement into Arunachalâ€” launched in 1980 by General Krishna Rao on the orders of Indira Gandhi. China had captured Tawang in 1962 but had withdrawn realising that it could not hold on in the event of a counter-attack by the Indian Army. The operation was launched to secure Tawang against any adventurism by China. However, India had to suspend the operation in 1993 in lieu of China promising not to foment any border trouble. Now with China building up forces in Tibet, Delhi had no option but to re-start the operation. The foreign office made a high-level visit to Arunachal and apprised the cabinet of the pluses and minuses of agreeing to the defence ministryâ€™s request. Reacting with unprecedented swiftness, India launched a massive border road-building programme, not just by the defence ministryâ€™s Border Roads Organisation (BRO), but even under Centrally-funded state government efforts such as Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana. â€œEarlier the military doctrine of the country was not to have roads close to borders,â€ Defence Minister A.K. Antony told the Rajya Sabha last month, â€œbut the same has now been revised in the changing geo-political scenario, and the government has taken a conscious decision to expedite construction of road infrastructure in border areas.â€ A few days earlier, the BRO had told Parliamentâ€™s standing committee on defence: â€œTwo years back the philosophy of our nation was that we should not make roads as near to the border as possible.... It is only two to three years back that we suddenly decided a change in philosophy and said, no, we must go as far forward as possible.â€ Indeed, the military and the BRO moved with incredible speed to match the Chinese road for road. â€œBorder Roads Organisation has been asked to concentrate on strategic roads,â€ Antony told the Rajya Sabha on August 11. â€œThere are 73 roads on India-China border (length 3,647km), out of which the BRO has been entrusted with 61 roads of total length of 3,394km in J&K, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. Out of 61 roads, 14 roads of length 556.22km have already been completed and work is under progress on 42 roads....[Work] on five roads has not commenced.â€ According to Antony, 41 roads are planned to be completed by 2013 and the remaining six later. The IAF, facing a severe shortage of transport helicopters, too, has been asked to pitch in. It lent 142.45 tonnes of heli-lift capability to the BRO in the last six months. Finding this inadequate, the ministry has asked the BRO to hire Pawan Hans helicopters. While the BRO has been building roads, the Army and Air Force have been enhancing their strike power. The Dimapur Corps (3 Corps), which has several mountain divisions under it, has been completely pulled out of counter-insurgency operations in the northeast and converted into a full-fledged offensive corps on the China border. The corps has also been given awesome firepower. The Rangia-based 2 Mountain Division has been pulled out from the Tezpur Corps (4 Corps) and attached to the offensive Dimapur Corps. The corps has also been promised, in an emergency, the services of 41 Division, which is still under the Tezpur Corps. And crowning all the moves is a recent accretion: two new mountain divisionsâ€”numbered 41 and 56â€”have been quietly raised and given to the Dimapur Corps. In short, in case the Chinese attempt any kind of adventurism on the Arunachal-Sikkim sector, the Indian Army would have three full corps waiting for themâ€”the Sukhna-based 33 Corps, the Tezpur-based 4 Corps and the newly-augmented Dimapur-based 3 Corps. All of them have also been given the light 155mm guns which can be heli-lifted. Advanced landing grounds have been built in Tuting, Pasighat, Vijaynagar, Along and Mechuka in Arunachal for heli-landing troops and equipment. â€œTake it from me,â€ said a general staff officer, â€œif they come, the Chinese will find Tawang an impregnable fortress.â€ Apparently the Chinese know this. And so they have been shifting focus onto the western sector comprising Indiaâ€™s Ladakh. A few probing trespasses were made there last year, to which India responded with three measures. First, Jairam Rameshâ€™s road-blocking environment ministry withdrew its objections to building roads in some 760 Himachal villages. Second, the Indian Air Force augmented and activated a landing strip at Nyoma, 20km from the China border for taking troop-carrying Antonov-32 planes. Next, the IAF developed two more airstrips at Fukche and Daulat Beg Oldi. The third move, by the cabinet, was to clear the contract for building a tunnel in Rohtang which would make it possible for the troops to move to Ladakh at any time of the year. At present the Ladakh garrisons are supplied troops, food, fuel and ammunition through two routes. One is the Pathankot-Srinagar-Zoji la-Kargil-Leh route, which is blocked by snow in winter and is within the firing range of Pakistani artillery (Kargil war 1999). The other is the Kullu-Manali-Rohtang-Leh route, which is also snow-blocked in winter. A horse-shoe tunnel in the snow-prone stretch at more than 3,000 metres near the 4,000-metre-high Rohtang Pass would make the route available throughout the year. The project was approved in 2000, but no progress has been made since. Suddenly the government remembered it and Sonia Gandhi inaugurated its construction on June 28. These moves, India expects, would make a Chinese bid on Ladakh from Aksai Chin in the east almost impossible. So the Chinese are opening another front on the westâ€”from Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan-held northern areas. What next, Delhi?