After Decades of Neglect, India Builds Along China's Border

  • New bridge will pave way for smooth troop movement in region
  • Move follows China’s Himalayan infrastructure development

For more than five decades, India ignored the roads along its 4,056 kilometer-long (2520 mile) disputed border with China. The logic was simple: the South Asian nation didn’t want to give Chinese troops an easy path if Beijing ever tried to repeat the brief 1962 border war and encroach into the territory India sees as its own.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is trying to change all that. On Friday, he’s due to open the nation’s longest bridge spanning 9.2 km across the Brahmaputra River to ensure the smooth movement of troops to the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, one of India’s most remote regions that is claimed in full by China.

"The bridge across Brahmaputra into Arunachal Pradesh is a great strategic shift in the thinking in the Indian defense establishment regarding infrastructure development in the borders with China," said K.V. Kuber, an independent defense analyst and former colonel in the Indian Army, "The new infrastructure will help the Indian military to be prepared for a decent rebuttal to ward off any misadventure from the Chinese side."

The bridge is among a slew of infrastructure projects that Modi has fast-tracked since taking office three years ago. The projects include a railway bridge taller than the Eiffel Tower in the disputed region of Kashmir and a train track in the middle of a tiny southern island in the Indian Ocean. They were launched a decade ago under the government of former prime minister Manmohan Singh. Now Modi’s biggest challenge is to see these projects to completion without years-long delays -- something those before him have struggled with.

In this 2014 photo, construction is underway at world’s highest railway bridge is pictured over the Chenab river.

Photographer: Prakash Singh/AFP via Getty Images

Tense Relations

The projects are aimed at asserting India’s dominance in a region where China has already made significant inroads. India and China have tense bilateral relations, despite a $70 billion trading relationship, driven in part by Beijing’s investment in Pakistan, including in the disputed Pakistan-controlled region of Kashmir which is claimed by India.

China’s foreign ministry did not respond to a faxed request for comment.

As India -- the world’s biggest arms importer -- struggles to upgrade its military from an era dominated by Soviet weaponry, these infrastructure projects may provide some cushion to Modi.

"India has to be prepared for a short, intense war in the years to come and movement of resources from one sector to another -- depending on the threat envisaged -- is of utmost importance to the Indian armed forces," said S. K. Chatterji, an independent defense analyst and a former brigadier in the Indian Army, "This bridge on the Brahmaputra will help India to quickly move resources, including military weapons and equipment at will, to the borders with China along Arunachal Pradesh."

Neglected Region

In Arunachal Pradesh in the Himalayas, which China considers South Tibet, India will follow the bridge over the Brahmaputra by building a 2,000-kilometer highway in the state at a cost of $6 billion.

"It shows India has stepped up its control over South Tibet," said Du Youkang, director of the Center for South Asian Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, and a former Chinese diplomat in Islamabad and New Delhi. "However, I doubt one bridge can have any impact on the actual border situation. It might potentially help moving military resources around in a hypothetical situation, but overall, it’d have little effect on power balance on the borders."

Indian officers on the Ladakh border during the war between India and China in 1962.

Photographer: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images

In 1962, India and China fought a deadly, four-week war over their Himalayan border. Chinese troops advanced into Arunachal Pradesh and another disputed area to the west. It ended when China declared a cease-fire and withdrew to a boundary known as the McMahon Line formed by Britain and Tibet in 1914, which serves as the de facto border today.

Since then, even as China developed infrastructure along the border, India viewed the "lack of roads in the state as a defense mechanism to stop Chinese troop movement into India’s heartland," according to a research paper by the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses.

"The 1962 war was traumatic and until recently created a timorous mindset amongst the political, bureaucratic and military leadership," said Deepak Sinha, a consultant with the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation, "It ensured that we adopted a defensive attitude and were unwilling to consider any offensive operations in the event of another attack."

Belt and Road

India’s mindset seems to be changing now. It comes as Chinese President Xi Jinping gathered 29 heads of government and representatives of 130 countries at his Belt and Road Forum -- one that India has refused to attend.  

And just over a month ago, India hosted the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, who campaigns for autonomy and human rights while in exile in Arunachal Pradesh.

Indian security personnel behind a poster of the Dalai Lama in the state of Arunachal Pradesh in April 2017.

Photographer: Biju Boro/AFP via Getty Images

India accuses China of occupying 38,000 square kilometers in Jammu and Kashmir, while Beijing lays claim to 90,000 square kilometers of land in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh.

Modi is doing the same across its borders with nuclear rival Pakistan. India is building the world’s tallest railway bridge in the disputed Kashmir region at a height of 359 meters, as well as a railway track in the southern Andaman and Nicobar islands.

Ten years ago the Singh government authorized the construction of 73 strategic roads along the border, said Shashank Joshi, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London. "The key question is whether the Modi government will be any more effective at building roads, which have proceeded extremely slowly and inefficiently over the past several years."

— With assistance by Hannah Dormido

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