China admitted to just four fatalities from the fateful hand-to-hand slugfest on 15 June 2020. Indeed, the PLA's Xinjiang Military Command announced on 15 June this year that it held a ceremony commemorating the four "heroes and martyrs" who lost their lives in that Galwan Valley clash.
At the event, Chinese soldiers vowed, "If war comes, I will not hesitate to rush like you to dedicate my last heartbeat to our motherland." Amidst their patriotic fervor, they promised, "I would rather sacrifice my life than lose one inch of my country's territory."
This week, Jeff M. Smith, a Research Fellow at The Heritage Foundation in Washington DC, wrote in the Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs, an official publication of the US Air Force, that LAC confrontations had been growing in frequency since 2013, the year in which Xi Jinping was exalted to China's throne. In fact, Lake Pangong has been the site of a disproportionate number of transgressions at the LAC by the PLA over the years.
Smith thinks the Galwan crisis was at least partially due to Indian efforts to upgrade infrastructure near the LAC. China already held an infrastructure advantage on its side, so it did not want India narrowing the gap. With diplomatic pressure bearing no fruit, Beijing perhaps thought military coercion was required.
Smith continued, "If so, China was drawing from a similar playbook it had adopted in years past, albeit with sharper edges and a greater appetite for risk, paralleling a broader trend of Chinese 'Wolf Warrior' assertiveness in recent years. It is unlikely, however, that Beijing foresaw the bloodshed that might arise from the adventure, or the considerable blow it might deal to the already tense relationship."
China's later reluctant withdrawal at Lake Pangong warranted just a one-sentence statement from China's Ministry of National Defense on 10 February this year, with a buffer zone established ten days after that. At about the same time, China finally released details of the four fallen soldiers. This caused an outpouring of Chinese public support, including the trending hashtag "They died for us". The cynical might say that China cleverly released this information to deflect attention for making concessions along the border.
M. Taylor Fravel, Director of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, commented on the PLA's eventual pullback: "China appears to have calculated that the political costs of a long-term military standoff with India had now become too high. As I show in recent testimony, China's assessment of its international environment now emphasizes what Xi Jinping describes as 'profound changes unseen in a century' that are associated with power shifts, rapid technological change, decaying global governance and populism. Although this assessment sees a favorable 'rising East, declining West,' it also highlights greater uncertainty and sources of instability that China must navigate to achieve its ambitious economic goals. Stabilized relations with India will help China achieve these goals, whereas continued militarized confrontation would not."
Of course, Beijing has always viewed India as a secondary strategic direction, as opposed to its priority of Taiwan and US forces in the West Pacific. China does not bother comparing itself to India, but only with the USA, with which it has endured recent precipitous relations. Fravel believes, "As relations with the United States worsened, the urgency for China to repair ties with India increased." Furthermore, Xi sees Delhi as the weakest link in the Quad grouping, so would like to weaken the bonds of that loose alliance.
The Doklam conflict in 2017 was a tripwire that signaled China had changed tack and was willing to be far more aggressive. About that time, China embarked on a swathe of plans and projects to build military strength along the LAC. Its blitzkrieg campaign on military construction includes fortifications, expanded airbases, heliports and rail lines. These are far more than just defensive measures, for they boost the PLA's ability to project power across the LAC.
A detailed examination using satellite imagery by the online news portal The Warzone concluded, "To put it frankly, 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."
For instance, the two Chinese airbases nearest Eastern Ladakh are Hotan and Ngari Gunsa. They are being upgraded, as are more distant airports/airbases. Thus, the civil-military Hotan Air Base has received a second runway with a parallel taxiway, and a new support/maintenance area with several hangars in which can be seen unmanned aerial vehicles. A new underground tunnel has been created, but its purpose is not yet certain.
The Warzone stated: "The expansion of capabilities at Hotan are not a minor adjustment in China's posture, and represent a drastic escalation that is fully oriented toward expanding Chinese airpower in the areas around Ladakh. In addition to airpower, the large base also serves as a major logistical hub in this region where Chinese ground forces man positions along the disputed frontlines."
As for Ngari Gunsa Air Base, at least 12 new hardened shelters are being built. Fighter jets are typically deployed at this base, suggesting even more will be sited there in future. There are new hangars, a likely maintenance/support area, munitions storage facility and surface-to-air missiles (SAM) all illustrates a desire to fill capability gaps in that western part of the border with India. Previously, PLAAF aircraft were exposed to the elements at Ngari Gunsa.
Hardened aircraft shelters and underground facilities increase the survivability of military assets, and boost sustainability of operations. With so much activity going on, it is not yet clear how China will use these facilities operationally, but it is undeniable that the PLA is boosting its capability to fight along and across the Indian border. Indeed, it is reported that the PLAAF is conducting unprecedented levels of air activity near the border.
Lhasa Air Base has 24 hardened aircraft shelters under construction. Two are set apart, possibly reserved for quick-reaction fighters. A new helicopter staging area is thought to be on the way too, strengthening the PLA's burgeoning helicopter network in the region. There are several underground facilities under construction just south of Lhasa's airport. Lhasa was the main airbase supporting PLA operations during the Doklam crisis, plus it is a major logistical hub.
Furthermore, the 85th Air Defense Brigade of the Tibet Military District has received HQ-16B SAMs. One analyst has identified eleven new SAM sites near the border, one of which is in Pagri. There are at least five north of Arunachal Pradesh at Nariyong, Cona, Longzi, Nyingchi and Bangda.
Furthermore, Changdu Bangda Airport in eastern Tibet is having its second runway refurbished and maybe even extended. There are new underground facilities in adjacent mountains to the southwest, which must have a military purpose.
Kashgar Air Base in Xinjiang is receiving 12 hardened shelters plus maintenance/support areas. A new SAM site has been created too, likely with HQ-9 missiles. During last year's crisis, the base hosted H-6 bombers; with an apron extension there, this could suggest a long-term ambition to base H-6s there.
Completely new airports are being built too at Tingri and Damxung in eastern Tibet, as well as Tashkorgan in Xinjiang. These sites show clear signs of soil preparation and outlines for runways, aprons and support areas. While it is too early for signs of military use, logic dictates that they will be at least dual-use airports.
All these improvements enable the PLA to project increased airpower along the border with India. If a conflict does occur, the PLAAF will better sustain operations and ensure control of the skies.
There has been a corresponding surge in helipads and ground force garrisons in Tibet and Xinjiang too. This reflects a multi-domain effort to create anti-access and area denial against India, making it far more difficult for Delhi to operate militarily in any conflict.
These facilities have not come about solely because of last year's tensions, for the time elapsed is too short for such construction to fructify. These plans must date back at least as far as 2017, as China obviously made a conscious decision to develop infrastructure. This recent investment will have a far-reaching strategic return for years to come.
The Warzone concluded, "The growth of Chinese strength along its western border will surely embolden Beijing in the pursuit of territorial claims and in future border clashes that may in fact translate into an even more aggressive posture. By also logistically unlocking the Chinese ability to project offensive military power from the western part of the country, toward India or Central Asia, it raises a perception of a Chinese military threat beyond the geographically limited border disputes themselves. With this in mind, the build-up of combat capability on China's western edge will likely become a greater international concern as time goes on."
Since last December, the PLA's Western Theater Command has been headed by General Zhang Xudong. Although he had no prior experience in that region, he replaced General Zhao Zongqi. In June 2020, the PLA appointed Lieutenant General Xu Qiling as commander of that theater's ground force.
Also writing in the Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs, Dr Liu Xuecheng, a senior research fellow of China Institute of International Studies, reflected a Chinese perspective: "It is almost certain that the Sino-Indian border dispute cannot be settled in the immediate years to come. The two countries need to manage the dispute properly and, at the same time, expand and enhance their bilateral diplomatic consultations and military coordination so that they might prevent costly incidents in the disputed areas along the LAC. In time, this cooperative approach might create favorable conditions for the settlement of the territorial disputes at some point in the future."
Liu concluded, "In recent years, unwanted skirmishes and clashes along the LAC have been highly politicized, exacerbating antagonistic domestic dynamics as well as furthering the perception of international competition. To continue intensifying cooperation among China, India and the rest of Asia, leaders would do well to remember that 'divide and rule' remains a powerful strategy in world politics. Indian and Chinese leaders should each avoid falling into that trap."
Dr Ashok Sharma, Visiting Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre of the Australian National University, believes, "At first blush, the Galwan Valley clash is seen primarily in the context of a long-standing border dispute and differing perceptions of the LAC. However, it is the strategic rivalry between India and China that undergirds the conflict - part of the unfolding geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific region, which has become more intense during the COVID-19 pandemic. After successfully controlling the virus at home, China attempted to use the humanitarian crisis of COVID-19 to advance its geopolitical goal of displacing US primacy, especially in the Indo-Pacific."
Sharma concluded, "China's aggression along the LAC was intended to send a message to India that it was no match for China. This has only exacerbated the already tense relationship between the two nuclear-armed nations and heightened their strategic rivalry in the Indo-Pacific."
The border dispute has three dimensions: legal arguments, international circumstances and domestic politics. Despite negotiations over many years, the respective positions of Beijing and Delhi have not changed. Additionally, last year's confrontation has contributed to the wider Indo-Pacific strategic struggle, including huge impetus to the Quad.
Sharma warned, "More confrontations are likely unavoidable ... India-China relations will be intense and competitive in the post-COVID-19 world, with both vying, in many cases, for the same resources, markets and influence in pursuit of their great-power ambitions. The India-China relationship will be marked by suspicion and mistrust." (ANI)