The South Asia Channel

The Indo-China Border Heats Up

The Indo-China border is heating up yet again. India reacted sharply to a new Chinese map that shows Arunachal Pradesh, a northeastern state in India, as part of China, amidst reports that Chinese troops intruded into Indian territory earlier this week. India has increasingly been growing concerned about the massive Chinese infrastructure buildup along the border.

Partially in response, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led central government is fast tracking delayed border infrastructure projects worth several hundred million dollars that were sanctioned by the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. These include the construction of around 6,000 km (3728 miles) of roads near the Indo-China border. Planned Indian Defense Ministry projects within 100 km (62 miles) of the border with China are expected to no longer need environmental approvals from the central environment ministry - a measure that can typically take years away from a new project's construction time line. The new government also plans to allocate an additional $830 million to encourage villagers to settle in areas bordering China in Arunachal Pradesh. The move comes after the state's governor wrote to the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) to point out the threat of gradual annexation of territory by China due to the thinning of the population along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

It seems the new government intends to use a combination of infrastructure augmentation and soft power to establish a stronghold over territories along its eastern border. Indian Environment Minister, Prakash Javdekar, has indicated that the forthcoming union budget would have a North East Action Plan, to integrate the far-flung states bordering India's eastern neighbors into the mainstream through television, radio, and digital media connectivity. According to Javdekar, one of the advantages of infrastructure augmentation in border areas is to enable the voice of the Indian government to reach where "people were getting to hear the propaganda of other countries," a thinly veiled reference to China.

A similar strategy might be in the works for the northern states of Jammu and Kashmir. The reportedly fast tracked infrastructure projects also include those along the border with Pakistan. Indeed, the theme of economic development and integration for remote states in the "north east and Jammu and Kashmir" featured prominently in the BJP's election manifesto. Significantly, days after the BJP assumed power last month, Jitendra Singh, minister of state in the PMO, raised a political storm of sorts by his remarks that the process of debating Article 370 of the Indian constitution had already begun. Article 370 grants special, autonomous status to Jammu and Kashmir and limits the powers of India's parliament to legislate for the state. Later, Singh claimed that he had been misquoted, though his statement was recorded on camera. Commentators and political figures have raised concerns that doing away with Article 370 would lead to political instability and undermine India's constitutional claims on Jammu and Kashmir. However, revoking this article might also mean a closer integration of the state economically, politically, and socially with the rest of India. Developing infrastructure in all parts of the state, including the borders, would be crucial in expediting such an envisioned economic integration.

That the BJP is moving fast to secure India's borders should come as no surprise. The party has traditionally taken a hard line on national security issues. In an election rally early this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, then BJP prime ministerial candidate, asked China to "give up its expansionist attitude." Given this seemingly hawkish approach, political commentators now expect the Modi-led government to beef up India's defense apparatus and take a rigorous approach to national security. Since the government assumed power a month ago, crucial defense projects, including a major naval base and radar station, were given environmental clearances. However, India's attempts to develop its border infrastructure are hardly new. The previous UPA government has, in fact, already been trying to initiate development along India's borders over the last several years, albeit with limited success.

The move to develop the country's border infrastructure in the last decade has been a key shift away from its traditional stance to use its border areas as "buffer zones." After a bitter defeat at Chinese hands in the 1962 Sino-India war, the Indian government wanted to block off possible potential advancement into its territory in the event of an invasion. One of the ways to do so was to leave its border areas undeveloped. As a result, signs of economic activity and infrastructure are typically visible only 60 - 80 km (37 - 50 miles) inside the Indian border. With China's economic liberalization post 1979, the possibility of Chinese goods flooding Indian markets through easily accessible land routes could also have been a concern. China had none of these misgivings and proceeded to build formidable rail, air, and road infrastructure right up to the LAC with India.

With time, the rationale of keeping India's border areas under-developed has not held up. In the event of war, China can mobilize its forces faster and rush supplies and armed troops to the border much more quickly than India. By some estimates, China's rapid defense mobilization is expected to outnumber Indian soldiers 3 to 1 and it is complemented by five operational airbases, extensive rail network, and over 58,000 km (36,039 miles) of roads in the Tibet Autonomous Region. Before, such a massive troop mobilization would have taken months.

A 2013 study carried out by Observer Research Foundation, an Indian think tank, found that because China has established military camps (not cantonments) along the border, Chinese troops remain acclimatized, while the same cannot be said for most of the Indian border forces based in the plains of the northeastern state of Assam. In the event of sudden deployment, troop acclimatization would be an additional challenge for India.

In the last decade, the detrimental security implications of this massive neglect hit home. Conceding that China had built superior infrastructure along the LAC, then Defense Minister A.K. Antony described insufficient infrastructure along the border with China as India's "collective failure" in the Indian parliament last year. India has also expressed concerns about China's plans to build a multi-billion dollar economic corridor passage through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Partially to counter China's massive infrastructure buildup, India decided to raise an 80,000 strong mountain strike corps last year at a cost of around $15 billion and to position the new units along the Indo-China border. Starting in 2009, the UPA government started allocating millions of dollars to rapidly build infrastructure along areas bordering China and Pakistan.

However, actual implementation of these ambitious projects has been tardy at best. Earlier this year, a parliamentary panel slammed the poor progress, noting that only one of 27 roads sanctioned in the last eight years has been completed and crucial railway links along the China border are yet to progress beyond paper. Reasons behind this massive delay range from the questionable capacity of the Border Roads Organization (tasked with building border roads) to time taken in land acquisition and obtaining environmental and administrative clearances.

The new administration has a formidable task at hand. Not only does new border infrastructure need to be built, existing road links need to be refurbished and maintained. Assuming that the delayed projects are actually accelerated now, the proposed infrastructure will still take years to build. This gap continues to leave India in a vulnerable position in the interim. China and Pakistan are not likely to be too pleased about this new border augmentation plan and might see this as India flexing its muscle. Diplomatic maneuvering would be required to keep bilateral tensions from escalating while making progress on the projects.

But, situated at the very center of a volatile region, India can no longer afford to allocate massive funds and forget about these projects for the next several years. The country needs an overarching strategy to further its border infrastructure plans, along with coordinated central oversight, and regular project monitoring. It remains to be seen whether the new government can make this crucial agenda move beyond the paper to which it seems to have been relegated.

Ritika Katyal is pursuing a Master in Public Affairs at Princeton University. She can be contacted at ritika@princeton.edu

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