Sino-Indian Border Infrastructure In The Indian Defense Ministry’s Year End Review – Analysis

The Indian Ministry of Defense released its Year End Review 2023 a few days ago. The review provides a state of play on areas under its purview including defense production and exports, major defense acquisitions, border infrastructure, and individual service updates from the Indian army, navy and air force.

Much of what India is attempting to do in the defense realm has to do with China and its growing military prowess. However, a look at past year-end reviews demonstrates that it is not always so overt in doing so. In this regard, the Year End Review for 2020 was an exception, as there was a special emphasis on China’s aggressive behavior. The review came only a few months after the Galwan clash, in which India lost 20 soldiers, so this is maybe not so surprising. But since then, it appears that India has gone on to do a more general review that scans all the major developments concerning the Indian Ministry of Defense.

Even though there was no specific mention of China in this year’s review, the construction of border infrastructure along the India-China border is accelerating and there is a detailed appraisal of the current status in the review. This is important given that India and China are still locked in a conflict with a total of around 150,000 troops standing by on both sides of the border. Many commentators have suggested that it was the infrastructure race that led to the Chinese actions in 2020.

Upgraded infrastructure comes with enormous benefits, from better trade to commercial prospects. It’s also a critical enabler for applying military power. In the case of India and China, there has been an evident military imbalance as far as defense platforms, military units, and the physical infrastructure. China’s focus on building modern state-of-the-art infrastructure across the border and in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) has had an important bearing in terms of its ability to get troops to the border. The extensive road network in Tibet as well as the rail links that China has developed in these areas have facilitated troop mobilization by road and rail in a short time span. Further, China’s establishment of oil and logistic depots all along the border areas says a lot about the advanced infrastructure capabilities that China has put in place, which in turn put India at a significant disadvantage.

The Indian side continues to face limitations when it comes to troop mobility and logistics supply to forward areas because of the relatively poorer state of infrastructure on its side of the border. Infrastructure development on the Indian side has picked up pace in recent years, but the Indian military still faces many constraints. In October, in a study on the state of the Sino-Indian border infrastructure John Swartz provided a detailed account of the improvements to date. Swartz writes that “the increased number of tunnels and bridges also signals far more investment, operational capacity, and technical capability, while independently adding to the quality of the road system.” He added that as far as air forces are concerned, India has enjoyed topography-induced “strategic advantage” (which allows India to launch aircraft at full capacity) and therefore even with a smaller budget, India’s position is not badly placed. However, the rail connectivity in the border areas presents a rather bleak picture, with Swartz arguing that there exists “a large asymmetry.”

The 2023 review notes that the Indian Defense Minister dedicated a total of 118 infrastructure projects led by the Border Roads Organization (BRO), although this is across the country and not limited to Sino-Indian border areas alone. In September, the minister unveiled 90 projects across 11 states and union territories. Of the 90 projects, a large number of them belong to the Sino-Indian border areas including 36 in Arunachal Pradesh; 26 in Ladakh; 11 in Jammu & Kashmir; five in Mizoram; three in Himachal Pradesh; two each in Sikkim, Uttarakhand and West Bengal and one in Nagaland.

Across different sectors along the Sino-Indian border, notable projects included the Nechiphu Tunnel in Arunachal Pradesh;  as well as two airfields, two helipads, 22 roads and 63 bridges. In January 2023, 28 infrastructure projects were kicked off at an event at Siyom Bridge on Along-Yingkiong road in Arunachal Pradesh. These projects included 22 bridges, including Siyom bridge; three roads and three other projects in seven border states or union territories of the Northern and North-Eastern regions, comprising of eight projects in Ladakh; five in Arunachal Pradesh; four in Jammu and Kashmir; three each in Sikkim, Punjab and Uttarakhand and two in Rajasthan. The review claimed that the BRO was able to complete these strategically vital projects in record time, most of them within a single working season using the best available technology.

As for the scale of work, the review stated that 601 kms of roads have been finished during the year. The review added that extensive work has been done “on India-China Border Roads and all other Op-Critical Roads along the Northern Borders.” This includes critical roads such as Nimu-Padam Darcha road, Gunji-Kutti-Jolingkong road, Balipara- Chardwar-Tawang road, TCC-Taksing road, TCC-Maza road that are proceeding at an accelerated pace. Some of the major road projects that are at varying stages of work, with some nearing completion in the coming months include: Raqni-Ustad-Pharkiyan Gali road and Srinagar-Baramulla-Uri road in Jammu and Kashmir; alternate connecting road to DBO road in Ladakh as well as the Chushul-Dungti-Fukche-Demchok road; and in Uttarakhand, the Gunii-Kutti-Jollingkong road, a road in the Ghatiabagarh-Lakhanpur-Lipulekh Pass, and Nyu Sobla-Tidang road. The government also set up three telemedicine nodes, including two in Ladakh and one in Mizoram this year. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Home Affairs has approved the construction of four roads, a total of 255 kms, in Arunachal Pradesh under Project Arunank.

As for tunnels, the BRO has undertaken work on 20 tunnels, 10 of which are under construction and 10 in the planning stage. The BRO will soon begin working on the 4.1 km Shinku La Tunnel on the Nimu-Padam-Darcha road in Ladakh, with aims to complete it by December 2025, according to Union Minister Anurag Thakur who detailed the Cabinet decision. When completed, this will be the highest tunnel in the world at an altitude of 15,855 ft, and will provide better connectivity irrespective of weather to the border areas around Ladakh. Another important tunnel project currently underway is the Sela tunnel on Balipara-Chariduar-Tawang Road in Arunachal Pradesh which involves two tunnels of twin tube configuration.

The review notes that this can reduce the travel distance by more than 8 kms and bring down travel time by an hour, and most importantly it will establish all-weather connectivity to Tawang. This tunnel, when completed, will possibly break another record in terms of being the longest bi-lane highway tunnel in the world at an altitude of 13,800 feet. There is also the 260-meter Kandi Tunnel in Jammu and Kashmir, strengthening connectivity between Jammu and Poonch that was completed in October. Some of the key bridges in the border areas include a permanent bridge over the Shyok River in Ladakh which was completed in March. During the year, a total of 3,179 meters of bridges were developed.

All of this has been possible with better financial allocation and a sharper focus from the government following on from the increasingly adversarial nature of ties between India and China. According to the review, the BRO’s budget has come to “a record high of Rs 12,340 crore in FY 2022-23 with a 100% jump in the funds allocated under GS Capital Head over the preceding two years which now stands at Rs 5,000 crore.”

Given the state of bilateral relations between India and China, New Delhi is doubling down on its efforts regarding strategic border infrastructure. In fact, since the Galwan conflict began in the summer of 2020, infrastructure development has received a strategic push to get troops and military supplies positioned near border areas. India’s push comes in the wake of China’s two-decade-long push from the late 1980s to construct state-of-the-art infrastructure across Tibet and the Sino-Indian border areas. India’s defensive approach to infrastructure development changed only in the late 2000s after seeing China’s modern road and railway networks and what they meant in the context of the Sino-Indian border conflict.

  • About the author: Dr Rajeswari (Raji) Pillai Rajagopalan is the Director of the Centre for Security Strategy and Technology (CSST) at the Observer Research Foundation New Delhi. Dr Rajagopalan was the Technical Advisor to the United Nations Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on Prevention of Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) (July 2018-July 2019). She was also a Non-Resident Indo-Pacific Fellow at the Perth USAsia Centre from April-December 2020. As a senior Asia defence writer for The Diplomat she writes a weekly column on Asian strategic issues.
  • Source: This article was published by the Observer Research Foundation and originally appeared in The Diplomat.