On January 3, India’s Defense Minister Rajnath Singh inaugurated the Siyom bridge in Arunachal Pradesh in the country’s northeast. Built on the Along-Yingkiong road across the River Siyom, the 100-meter-long steel arch bridge will facilitate faster induction of troops, heavy military equipment, and mechanized vehicles to forward areas along the eastern sector of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the de facto border between India and China.
On the same day, Singh virtually inaugurated 27 other infrastructure projects from the Siyom bridge site. Of these, eight are located in Ladakh, four in Jammu and Kashmir, five in Arunachal Pradesh, three each in Sikkim, Punjab and Uttarakhand, and two in Rajasthan. These are all states and union territories that border Pakistan and China.
Built by India’s Border Roads Organization (BRO), the 28 projects include 22 bridges, three roads, and three telemedicine projects.
The recent inauguration of infrastructure projects by the Indian defense minister comes amid a continuing stalemate between the Indian and Chinese armies along the western sector of the LAC in Ladakh. Tensions have been running high in the Ladakh sector since the violent clash at Galwan Valley in June 2020. More recently, on December 9, the two sides clashed at Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, raising concern over the possible extension of tensions to the eastern sector of the border.
India’s construction of connectivity infrastructure gathered momentum in the wake of the Sino-Indian military crises at Doklam (2017) and Galwan (2020).
A senior BRO official based in New Delhi told The Diplomat that in India’s Northeast, where “roads were sparse till recently and non-existent or in a decrepit state, especially in areas near the LAC, a network of roads, tunnels, bridges and even railway lines is emerging.”
Foremost among the projects being implemented along the LAC in the eastern sector is the Arunachal Frontier Highway, which will pass through Tawang, East Komeng, Upper Subansiri, West Siang, Tuting, Mechuka, Upper Siang, Debang Valley, Desali, Chaglagam, Kibithu, and Dong, before ending at Vijayanagar near the Myanmar border.
Once completed, this highway, which runs parallel to the LAC, will “extend a protective arm all around Arunachal Pradesh and thus the rest of the Northeast,” the BRO official said. China claims almost all of Arunachal Pradesh under the name South Tibet.
Also under construction in Arunachal are the East-West Corridor and the Trans Arunachal Highway as well as dozens of smaller roads, bridges, and tunnels. The 12-kilometer-long Sela Tunnel, which “will enable faster and round-the-year mobilization of troops to the LAC, is expected to be completed by April,” the BRO official said.
India’s infrastructure building along the LAC is recent. Its defeat in the 1962 war had an enormous impact on its psyche. For decades, India’s security establishment was averse to road-building near the LAC, as it was feared that this would facilitate a Chinese advance into India.
It was only in 2006 that the Manmohan Singh government adopted a plan to build 73 strategic border roads, most of them in areas where the Indian and Chinese perceptions of the LAC differed. In the 15 years since and especially in recent years, the construction of connectivity infrastructure along the LAC has accelerated.
India is not only “building roads and bridges in areas that didn’t have such connectivity in the past but also refurbishing roads and airfields to facilitate transport and landing of heavy weaponry and fighter jets at high altitudes,” an official in the Indian Ministry of Defense (MoD) told The Diplomat. The Nyoma air base in Ladakh, for example, which is located at an altitude of 4,180 meters and around 50 km from the LAC, is being upgraded to allow helicopters, fighter jets, and large transport planes to land.
India is also building alternative routes to recently built roads near the LAC.
In 2019, India completed construction of the 220-km-long Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie (DS-DBO) road, an all-weather road that runs parallel to the LAC in Ladakh and up to DBO, India’s northern-most outpost, which lies at the base of the Karakoram Pass.
It is now constructing the Sasoma-Saser La highway, “among the toughest projects undertaken by the BRO,” according to the BRO official. There are plans to extend this road up to DBO. Should the Chinese cut off India’s access to the DS-DBO road, he said, the Sasoma-Saser La road would provide an alternative route to DBO, “albeit one that can be used only in the summer months.”
BRO is also constructing feeder roads and bridges from the DS-DBO road that will enable troops and equipment to deploy right up to the LAC, the BRO official said.
According to the MoD official, India is “steadily bridging the infrastructure gap with China” along the LAC. This “reduction of the infrastructure differential” underlies China’s increasing aggression along the LAC over the past decade, he said.
China’s infrastructure building in the Himalayas precedes India’s efforts by several decades. Anxious to consolidate its military and administrative control over the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), China began building roads into the region in the early 1950s. Indeed, its construction of a road via Aksai Chin to TAR and the subsequent occupation of Aksai Chin in the 1962 war was driven by its quest for all-weather overland access to Tibet.
In the decades thereafter, China built multiple roads, even railway lines, into and across TAR. What is more, these are rapidly advancing toward the LAC. For instance, a second highway that China is building through Aksai Chin, which is scheduled to be completed in 2035, runs near the LAC in Ladakh.
Railway lines into Tibet are being extended to Yadong, near the LAC along the Indian border state of Sikkim, and to Nyingchi in southeast Tibet, just a few kilometers from the LAC in Arunachal Pradesh.
While the Chinese government says the roads and railway lines are to improve economic development and stability in the border areas, these have strategic significance as well.
Nyingchi, for example, is less than 16 km from the LAC, just north of India’s Tuting sector in the Upper Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh. The PLA’s 52nd and 53rd Mountain Infantry Brigades are located here. In the event of a Sino-Indian conflict in the LAC’s eastern sector, China will be able to rapidly mobilize trainloads of troops up to the front line.
On its side of the LAC in Arunachal Pradesh, India is constructing three railway lines – the 378 km long Bhalukpong-Tenga-Tawang line, the 248-km-long North Lakhimpur- Bame-Aalo-Silapathar line, and the 227 km-long Pasighat-Tezu-Parasuram Kund-Rupai line.
Unlike Chinese railway lines that are inching closer to the LAC, India’s plans for trains running near the LAC are yet to take off. The final location survey of the three strategic railway lines in Arunachal is done, and the report has been submitted to the railway ministry. It will be a decade at least before India can begin sending trainloads of troops to its frontier in Arunachal Pradesh.
India’s border infrastructure building has been beset by delays because of bureaucratic red tape, difficult terrain, natural disasters, and problems with land acquisition.
This has changed in recent years with “strategic projects being fast-tracked,” the MoD official said, stressing that over the past decade India has refused to be “intimidated by Chinese objections to its plans” with regard to border infrastructure building.
“Beijing will have to learn to accept India’s roads and rails near the LAC,” he said.