China began building at least 13 new military positions, including airbases and air defence units, near the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with India after the 2017 standoff at Doklam, with work on four heliports beginning after the current tensions in Ladakh.
Details of these military positions are outlined in a report released on Tuesday by Stratfor, a leading security and intelligence consultancy. The new positions include three airbases, five permanent air defence positions and five heliports.
“Construction on four of those new heliports started only after the onset of the current Ladakh crisis in May,” said the report authored by Sim Tack, a Belgium-based security and a military analyst with Stratfor.
“The 2017 Doklam crisis appears to have shifted China’s strategic objectives, with China more than doubling its total number of airbases, air defence positions, and heliports near the Indian border over the past three years,” it added.
The Chinese military is building four air defence positions within existing airbases, and other facilities such as additional runways and shelters that will help obscure combat aircraft from observation. It has also been deploying more air defence systems and fighter aircraft to existing facilities, the report said.
Amid the current standoff in Ladakh that became public in early May, there have been numerous reports of China deploying additional troops, special forces, armoured units and air defence units on the Tibetan plateau.
Analysis of open source satellite imagery has shown that China has created a surface-to-air missile site on the banks of Mansarovar Lake in Tibet, and is developing similar facilities to cover sensitive stretches of the disputed border in the Doklam and Sikkim sectors.
A graphic included in the Stratfor report showed that China had only one heliport and one air defence site on the Tibetan plateau in 2016, and there was a substantial expansion and upgrade of its military infrastructure in the area since 2019.
Last year, China developed four airbases, four air defence sites, one heliport and one electronic warfare station.
China has developed four airbases, four heliports and one air defence site on the Tibetan plateau this year. Work on heliports and one airbase began after the tensions in Ladakh.
“The rapid expansion of permanent Chinese military infrastructure points to intentions that span a wider timeframe than current and recent border standoffs,” the report said.
A significant portion of China’s recent infrastructure developments is aimed at “strengthening its ability to project air power along the entire Indian border” and exploiting potential “gaps in India’s capabilities”.
The report surmised that such “long-term developments rise above the more immediate deployments that China conducted in its previous border standoffs with India, and indicates future intent to ramp up Chinese assertive military posturing in border disputes with India”.
“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 mobilise forces into disputed border areas,” it said, adding that such an approach is similar to Beijing’s strategy in the South China Sea, where a build-up of permanent defence facilities supports Chinese “localised military superiority and significantly raises the potential cost of military opposition to Beijing’s maritime claims in the region”.
By applying the same strategy on the LAC, 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”.
Following a string of smaller skirmishes that culminated in the June 15 clash, which killed 20 Indian soldiers and also caused unspecified Chinese casualties, the two sides have deployed around 50,000 additional troops each along the LAC. After several rounds of military and diplomatic talks failed to take forward the disengagement process, China resorted to “provocative” military manoeuvres on August 29 and 30 that were thwarted by the Indian side.
This was followed by a string of incidents in which guns were fired for the first time along the LAC since 1975, though there were no casualties.
“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,” the Stratfor report said.
While China’s new developments are geographically focused on Ladakh, its activity “across India’s entire border will likely drive future expansions of Indian military infrastructure near disputed borders at Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh”, it said.
The report warned: “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.”