Pentagon Worries About Chinese Buildup Near India

China’s new airports and highways near the border have put officials on edge.

By , a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Indian Army soldiers near the Line of Actual Control
Indian Army soldiers near the Line of Actual Control
Indian Army soldiers near the Line of Actual Control, the de facto border with China, in India's Arunachal Pradesh state on Oct. 20. Money Sharma/AFP via Getty Images

Update, Dec. 17, 2021: This story has been updated to provide additional satellite imagery of the Chinese military buildup near the Indian border.

The U.S. Defense Department is newly concerned about China’s further military buildup near the demarcation line across its Himalayan border with India, a senior defense official told Foreign Policy, after Beijing deployed long-range strategic bombers to the area last month in another apparent warning to New Delhi.

The senior defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive policy deliberations, said that the buildup fits the pattern of Chinese regional aggression seen elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific region, such as in the Philippines, where Chinese coast guard vessels moved to block Philippine supply boats in November. But there’s optimism among experts and officials that India will be able to stand its ground against the People’s Liberation Army. New Delhi has put up more diplomatic and military resistance than China’s antagonists in other territorial incursions, such as in the South China Sea, experts said.

Update, Dec. 17, 2021: This story has been updated to provide additional satellite imagery of the Chinese military buildup near the Indian border.

The U.S. Defense Department is newly concerned about China’s further military buildup near the demarcation line across its Himalayan border with India, a senior defense official told Foreign Policy, after Beijing deployed long-range strategic bombers to the area last month in another apparent warning to New Delhi.

The senior defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive policy deliberations, said that the buildup fits the pattern of Chinese regional aggression seen elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific region, such as in the Philippines, where Chinese coast guard vessels moved to block Philippine supply boats in November. But there’s optimism among experts and officials that India will be able to stand its ground against the People’s Liberation Army. New Delhi has put up more diplomatic and military resistance than China’s antagonists in other territorial incursions, such as in the South China Sea, experts said.

“It’s just clear that [China has] become more assertive all across their territorial fault lines,” said Jeff Smith, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center. “Arguably India is the one where they’ve met the most resistance. The Indians will not be cowed, coerced, or intimidated.” 

Smith said that China has become more aggressive in the border region since armed Indian troops with bulldozers successfully forced a halt in the construction of a road near the Chinese-Indian-Bhutanese border at Doklam in 2017, a situation that embarrassed Chinese officials. “That has only further fed this sort of aggressive, nationalist inclination to double down and harden their positions,” Smith said. 

In the last couple of months, Indian officials have noted that China has kept a large number of troops on its side of the border and held more exercises, creating concerns that Beijing could act again. Indian officials and experts also note that China has a significant advantage in infrastructure along the Line of Actual Control, as the de facto border is known, establishing small airports, landing strips, and heated accommodations in the area. Chinese leader Xi Jinping has also signaled his commitment to the area with a recent visit to Tibet, a move that New Delhi saw as a signal to the Tibetan government not to side with India.

China's Hotan Airport, just north of the disputed Aksai Chin in the Kashmir region.
China's Hotan Airport, just north of the disputed Aksai Chin in the Kashmir region.

China’s Hotan Airport, just north of the disputed Aksai Chin in the Kashmir region, has been developed in the past year to accommodate a second runway and a larger ramp for military flights rotating through the region. Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies

But India has important practical advantages, officials said, including more experience fighting in high altitude. New Delhi has sought to use geography and acclimatization as an asymmetric counteradvantage to Beijing’s military might, taking peaks near lakes, while in certain instances the People’s Liberation Army has been forced to pull back ground units or bring in oxygen tents. 

The buildup in and of itself creates a dilemma for the Biden administration, as does the timing, with Russia currently amassing as many as 115,000 troops on the border with Ukraine. While American officials have insisted that they will not provide more military aid to Kyiv unless the Russians launch an invasion, another flash point—on top of China’s pressure campaign on Taiwan—risks splitting the Biden’s administration’s attention. 

The United States supported India “quickly and robustly” during a melee in May 2020, the senior defense official said, a moment that saw Chinese and Indian troops engaged in intense hand-to-hand combat after Beijing objected to Indian road construction near the disputed Aksai Chin region, a territory that both sides have contested dating back to the 1960s, when the two countries actually went to war. 

Chinese H-6 twin-engine jet bombers and other aircraft dot the runway at Golmud Airport.
Chinese H-6 twin-engine jet bombers and other aircraft dot the runway at Golmud Airport.

Chinese H-6 twin-engine jet bombers and other aircraft dot the runway at Golmud Airport, a jumping-off point for military and civilian flights from the third-largest city in the Tibetan Plateau. The Defense Department has taken note of the aircraft for its ability to conduct long-range precision strikes. Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies

American officials credited the standoff with drawing India closer to the United States, after years of courtship that spanned multiple U.S. administrations. It’s not clear whether the State Department or Pentagon are considering sending more weapons or equipment to India, but the senior defense official said that Washington is “engaging at all levels” with New Delhi. And the United States has become much more responsive at sharing intelligence detailing Chinese movements with India, an Indian official told Foreign Policy, speaking on condition of anonymity to detail China’s military buildup.

Even as they hope for diplomacy to resolve the situation, some in Congress see the crisis as another opportunity for the United States to deepen ties with India.

“The uptick in Chinese aggression in India’s Ladakh region underscores why security cooperation with India is so vital to both countries’ national interests,” Rep. Brad Sherman, a California Democrat who serves as a senior member of the foreign affairs committee and co-chairs the House India Caucus, told Foreign Policy in an emailed statement. “Given that India is a natural American partner with which we share a unique bond based on common democratic values, it is critical that we deepen our existing defense and security engagement with India as it faces escalating Chinese aggression. ​​In light of past, and possible future Chinese aggression in the Ladakh region, I know India appreciates U.S. support.”

India has traditionally turned its security focus toward Pakistan, but over the past two U.S. administrations, Indian officials have been increasingly aware of the threat posed by China—and experts see China’s position hardening in the border region. 

“What is clear is that Beijing’s decisions must have been made at the highest levels for political and strategic, not just tactical, reasons,” former Indian National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon wrote in Foreign Affairs earlier this month. “This makes the dispute harder to settle. China previously described the boundary disagreement as a product of history, leaving room for give, take, and negotiation. Sovereignty, by contrast, is sacred and inviolable.”

A heliport in Rutog, in the Tibetan region, along the border with India.
A heliport in Rutog, in the Tibetan region, along the border with India.

In recent months, China has built up a heliport in Rutog, in the Tibetan region, along the border with India. Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies

Bhutan, where China has been building roads into the border area, has also stopped speaking to India before consulting with China. Indian officials worry that China is trying to build more roads into the Siliguri corridor, known as the Chicken Neck, a connecting line between northeast India and the rest of the country. 

Still, both sides are worried about losing perceived advantages along the border, the Defense Department reported last month, and diplomatic talks have mostly hit a standstill. India has demanded a return to the status quo ante as of April 2020, while China has gotten more aggressive with territorial claims, including in east Bhutan, as Foreign Policy first reported earlier this year. Satellite imagery detected China building a second village in Arunachal Pradesh, in November. Open-source intelligence accounts on social media have also detailed China’s construction of new runways and its rotation of helicopters and bombers through the disputed Aksai Chin region, which is also claimed by India. 

Dense snows in the Himalayas during the winter would prove difficult terrain for launching another forward effort, especially in Ladakh, where Chinese and Indian troops sparred last year. But the violence along the Line of Actual Control last year has taught the Indian military never to let its guard down, the Indian official said, citing China’s protests of renewed Indian infrastructure and its ability to mobilize tanks in a matter of hours. The situation has left New Delhi in a Catch-22, the official said: It has to invest considerable attention on the border issue so as not to be seen as weak, but is also wary of escalating against superior Chinese military forces.

Chinese intentions in the region have been clouded by a lack of understanding of the military and political leadership driving deployments on the ground. In the last year alone, China’s Western Theater Command, which is responsible for the disputed border region, has undergone three leadership changes. But both Indian and Chinese officials seem to be coming to a consensus that the relationship, which was once characterized by informal summits between Xi and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who enjoyed strong personal chemistry, is never going to be the same. 

“At least some in Chinese leadership have concluded that it is inevitable that India will move closer to the West,” said Smith, the Heritage Foundation’s Asia expert. “They think that they were handling India with kid gloves and being extra sensitive to its interests, and it acted against them anyway. So why even pretend to be friendly anymore?”

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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