By: Neeta Lal

Even as India and China seek to repair their relationship in the wake of the 2017 Doklam face-off that brought them to the brink of war, neither is sparing any effort to bolster its defenses should conflict break out. The two armies are keeping a vigil on the fraught borders across the top of the world.

Bilateral ties froze when India prevented China from extending a road on the border of Bhutan in disputed territory between the two countries. Since that time China, still smarting, has expanded its presence to the north of the stand-off site.

Beijing also recently put in place measures in the critical zone around Tibet including conducting air force exercises and building expressways, heliports and airstrips. It has deployed howitzers in Tibet to enhance its high-altitude combat capability while developing the world’s first electromagnetic surface-to-surface rocket with India in mind.

China is also keen to gird up its armed forces amid territorial disputes in the South China Sea and escalating tension with the United States over issues ranging from trade to the status of Taiwan.

Chinese premier Xi Jinping recently told a meeting of the country’s top military brass that China faced increasing risks and challenges, and the armed forces must work to fortify its security and development needs. Xi, who is also chairman of the Central Military Commission, asserted that the armed forces must devise strategies for the new era and “take on responsibilities for preparing and waging war”.

“The world is facing a period of major changes never seen in a century, and China is still in an important period of strategic opportunity for development,” he said.

New Delhi too has adopted a more assertive posture to keep China’s expansionism in check. It is planning to deploy Akash missile systems along with attack helicopters and long-range fighter aircraft in the eastern sector.

Last month India inaugurated its longest rail and road bridge in the north-eastern state of Assam as part of efforts to boost defences on its sensitive border with China. The 4.9 km long Bogibeel bridge over the Brahmaputra river has taken nearly two decades and US$800 million to complete.  The bridge has been designed to bear the weight of India’s heaviest 60 tonne battle tanks and so fighter jets can land on it.

Prior to that, the country’s longest bridge, spanning 9.2 km, connecting Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, was unveiled in 2017 to ease the transfer of tactical defence assets.

Overall, India will spend US$2.9 billion on 44 roads along its border with China, to ensure quick mobilisation of troops in the event of conflict, according to a government document. The construction of other strategically important roads is being accelerated both in the eastern as well as the western sector.

However, despite the fact that China and India are both irritated by complex strategic and border issues, neither party wants major disruptions to bilateral relations. Buffeted by headwinds from the rapidly shifting global economic and political equations, China heads into 2019 with myriad challenges at home as well. Its population is ageing, its global infrastructure projects under the Belt and Road Initiative are coming under flak and its economy is decelerating under US trade sanctions, now into their sixth month.

This year also marks important milestones for Xi Jinping’s government – culminating in the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China in October – with a sense of uncertainty, in sharp contrast to the sense of confidence it exuded a year ago.

India is beset with its own array of problems beginning with the upcoming general elections in April-May. The Narendra Modi government, which romped home with an unprecedented majority in 2014, is under fire from the opposition and the public on many fronts including farmer distress, lack of jobs and an economy that has performed sub-optimally under its watch.

A huge trade deficit and investment are hugely lopsided in China’s favor are further adding to its woes. Delhi also views Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative suspiciously and refuses to join.

Ever since he came to power, Modi has initiated or fast-tracked infrastructure projects in India’s north-eastern states to counter Beijing’s buildup. It has launched a massive program to upgrade infrastructure along the frontier, especially in Arunachal Pradesh, following a string of intrusions by Chinese troops. However, experts believe the work needs to be speeded up to match infrastructure on the Chinese side.

According to a report by the Central Public Works Department, new roads will be constructed in the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Jammu and Kashmir, Uttarakhand, and Himachal Pradesh. The idea is three-pronged — to enhance connectivity of this remote region with the country’s mainland, facilitate speedy mobilisation of troops in the region should an Indo-China war break out and a quick transfer of war equipment in an emergency.

“All these measures have been long overdue,” elaborates Dr. Raju Satpatty, a Mumbai-based political analyst.  “Not only will they bring communication facilities and economic activity to the region, they will also ease the military movement of the paramilitary forces as well.”

A parliamentary panel on foreign affairs recently published a scathing report on the status of roads and called for a “thorough overhaul” of the region. The Border Roads Organisation “needs a thorough overhaul” as part of measures to improve roads and infrastructure along the disputed border with China, said the report.

It referred to “inadequate infrastructure including roads” along the border and said there is a “distinct feeling that BRO as an organisation with antiquated rules of delegation needs a thorough overhaul”. The panel, chaired by Congress leader Shashi Tharoor, said it was “perturbed…that despite a marked progress in recent years, the border road infrastructure on the India-China border is grossly inadequate, as confirmed by its own observations from its visits”.

In several important sectors, India is “dependent on single access routes, a risky proposition in times of conflict”. It added, “Worse, many roads are not built to withstand military traffic. Chinese had specifically taken advantage of this in the 1962 war and therefore we ought to draw lessons from the past on this matter.”

The committee recommended the BRO should work to “achieve full connectivity” and government should “significantly enhance the level of priority it gives to border roads” in view of last year’s standoff with Chinese troops at Doklam.