Saturday, June 19, 2021

Massive Chinese ramp-up of aviation facilities in border regions. Should India be worried?

China is building three new airbases and hugely expanding five others from Xinjiang to Tibet in moves that will immensely boost its air power in the event of a conflict with India in Ladakh or Arunachal.

The latest enormous expansion is part of a Chinese military infrastructure building blitz including new ground-based air defences, heliports and rail lines that began after the Doklam standoff in 2017 and have been stepped up following the bloody Galwan encounter and the subsequent India-China standoff.

The expansion is breathtaking in its scale and harkens back to the early 2010s in the South China Sea in terms of how fast Beijing is working to shift the strategic reality in the region on its own terms,” says a joint report by Detresfa, Sim Tack and The Intel Lab published in The Drive/The Warzone.

In the Xinjiang region, China’s building a new air base at Tashkurgan and expanding existing airbases and airports at Kashgar and another city Hotan. Hotan air base is close to the area that separates Aksai Chin and Ladakh. “The expansion of capabilities at Hotan is not a minor adjustment in China’s posture and represents a drastic escalation that is fully oriented toward expanding Chinese airpower in the areas around Ladakh,” says the report in The Warzone.

Close to Arunachal Pradesh, the Chinese are also expanding what used to be a primarily civilian airport at Chengdu Bangda. The airport’s runway, already one of the longest in China, is being extended and underground facilities are being constructed in the mountains next to the airport. The long runway is needed because the airport is situated at 14,219ft and engines don’t function at full efficiency at this elevation because of the rarified atmosphere.

Further away from the border, Lhasa Airport across from Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh is the logistical hub for the region and is also getting 24 new hardened shelters and underground facilities. China also constructed a new dual-use airport at Shigatse Tingri which is close to the Nepal border and about 230km from Doklam, the scene of the India-China standoff in 2018.

Also in Tibet, Ngari Gunsa airbase is getting 12 hardened aircraft shelters and this, says Detresfa in The Warzone, suggests more fighter aircraft could be based there at some point. Currently, there are only four J-11 (Flanker) twin-engined jets stationed at the base.

In addition, satellite imagery, says the report, also shows surface-to-air missiles have been installed at Ngari Gunsa and at other border locations in the region. At Lhasa, a helicopter area has also been built. The Chinese army has put a heavy emphasis on helicopter facilities in the region and also other parts of the country.

Does the Chinese build-up both on the ground and in the air mean India should view China as an implacable foe that might launch hostilities at any time? “At a meta-strategic level, they don’t want conflict,” says Manoj Kewalramani, fellow of China Studies at Takshashila Institution. “But we should not be comfortable assuming they will not do anything here,” he adds. “They know that fighting with India will be costlier than in the 1960s. But they are consolidating their position against India.”

The upgrading of the aviation network is also part of a wider effort to improve both the military and civilian infrastructure in Tibet and Xinjiang.

19/06/21 Paran Balakrishnan/Telegraph

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