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China-India border dispute

China builds up troop numbers close to Indian border flashpoint as soldiers prepare for first winter near Doklam

Analysts say Beijing is trying to pre-empt problems down the track by strengthening its presence in Himalayan frontier region

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 December, 2017, 9:11pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 December, 2017, 11:27pm

China has started building up its military forces near the Doklam plateau – the site of a protracted stand-off early this year, Indian media has reported.

Analysts suggested the development would allow China to tighten its control of its borders and prepare for any future problems in the region.

It is also improving its military infrastructure, including new mortar and gun positions, at a site between five and 10km from the site of this summer’s two-month stand-off, Indian media reported, citing satellite imagery acquired on December 3.

The images also show the presence of at least nine three-storey buildings and almost 300 large vehicles, suggesting that almost a whole troop division had been stationed in Yadong county in Tibet.

China has also deployed troops 50km further away in the Chumbi valley, where the borders of India, China and Bhutan meet, according to the report by Indian news portal ThePrint.

The build-up follows reports in early October that about 1,000 Chinese soldiers had remained in the Himalayan region, and were likely to stay in the area throughout winter for the first time.

The Indian Army already has several units in Sikkim province facing the Chinese in Doklam – which is claimed by both China and India’s ally Bhutan.

China’s defence and foreign affairs ministries did not respond to requests for comment.

The troops may have stepped back, but the China-India dispute in the Himalayas is far from over

Analysts said China could strengthen its control of the area if it learned the lessons from the Doklam stand-off, which ended in early September when Indian troops retreated and China stopped the road building that had triggered the dispute.

Long Xingchun, a South Asian affairs expert from China West Normal University, said that with the new facilities, Beijing could upgrade from seasonal patrols to year-round ones in the region.

“This is a signal that China will enhance border controls in the future when Beijing has a larger budget and better infrastructure building techniques,” Long said.

Rohan Mukherjee, an Asian affairs expert at Yale-NUS College in Singapore, said Beijing wanted to be prepared for any contingencies on the Doklam plateau.

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“India is locally dominant in the region in terms of military deployments and can defend the so-called chicken’s neck [a narrow, strategically vulnerable strip of territory that links its northeastern provinces with the rest of the country],” Mukherjee said.

“Therefore reinforcements are necessary from the Chinese perspective for the sake of a more favourable balance of capabilities in the region.”

Although the build-up has not spilt over to other territories, another stand-off in Doklam could not be ruled out, observers said.

“One would hope that both sides have learned the importance of diplomacy as a first resort since the last incident, but one cannot rule out a response from India similar to the previous one,” Mukherjee said.

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Li Li, a South Asian affairs specialist from the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, said the impact on other parties depended on how China mobilised its forces there.

In a meeting with his Indian counterpart Sushma Swaraj on Monday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the stand-off had put bilateral ties under severe strain, and both China and India should learn a lesson to prevent similar crises from happening again.

Last week China protested that its territorial sovereignty had been infringed after an Indian drone that entered its airspace crashed in Tibet.