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Aug 23, 2017 | 09:00 GMT

7 mins read

A Conflict in Three Parts

With limited roadways to the border at its disposal, India has to position its troops near the Line of Actual Control with China.
(ANNIRUDHA MOOKERJEE/AFP/Getty Images)
Editor's Note

High atop the Doklam Plateau, Indian and Chinese forces are still locked in a standoff. The dispute along the Line of Actual Control, the contested 4,057-kilometer (2,521-mile) border between China and India, began June 16. And in the time since, each side has vehemently denounced the other's presence, digging in for a prolonged fight. A military confrontation would have serious repercussions for India and China alike, but it can't be ruled out. This is the third installment in a three-part series evaluating the strategic position of both sides of the dispute.

For more than two months, Chinese and Indian forces have stood toe to toe on the Doklam Plateau. The standoff is just the latest manifestation of a border dispute that began long before Chinese soldiers tried to extend a road through the contested region June 16 — and one that extends well beyond the area in question. Along the thousands of kilometers of sinuous border between China and India lie three main points of contention: Aksai Chin, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim. The regions are the most likely sites of a military confrontation between China and India, and each presents its own set of strategic considerations.

A (Relatively) Hospitable Battleground

Control over Aksai Chin has long been a subject of fierce debate between China and India. Though Beijing has administered the territory since the end of the Sino-Indian War in 1962, New Delhi still officially claims it as part of the Ladakh district of Jammu and Kashmir state. China maintains a military presence in the region with support from the G219 highway that stretches from Lhatse in the east to Yecheng in the north by way of Aksai Chin. A series of secondary roads branch off G219 and run for 150 to 200 kilometers (93 to 124 miles) toward the Line of Actual Control (LAC), mainly through the Qizil Jilga river valley. Indian troops, meanwhile, depend primarily on secondary roads that extend from Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir, toward the LAC.

Aksai Chin's landscape is harsh and barren with little vegetation and a general elevation above 5,000 meters (16,400 feet). But because the territory consists mainly of a high plateau — the Depsang Plains — Aksai Chin is more suitable for mechanized warfare operations than much of the rest of the LAC. Hoping to take advantage of the topography, the Indian army is deploying a brigade of T-72 tanks to eastern Ladakh. In the event of a conflict, the unit, alongside elements of the new Indian Mountain Strike Corps, would be responsible for launching an offensive to cut off China's strategic highway through the region and restore control of Aksai Chin. Beijing, on the other hand, has adopted a predominantly defensive posture around Aksai Chin, digging trenches and installing reinforced concrete bunkers to protect its bases in the area.

Aksai Chin Map

Against the Elements

Arunachal Pradesh, by contrast, would present a more challenging combat environment. The hilly and heavily forested region, flanked to the north by the Himalayan Mountains separating Chinese and Indian territory, would make mechanized warfare all but impossible. Fighting in the sector, which New Delhi controls but Beijing claims as South Tibet, would likely devolve into infantry and artillery battles in inhospitable terrain.

Even so, the geography of Arunachal Pradesh works partly in China's favor. Beijing, for example, controls many of the taller peaks that extend from the Tibetan Plateau and overlook Indian-controlled territory. More important, the Tibetan Plateau meets the mountainous border of Arunachal Pradesh at a higher elevation than the land on India's side, giving China the strategic high ground in depth. Beijing also benefits from much more expansive infrastructure; the S202 road leads to the town of Tawang, while the S306 highway allows lateral movement for Chinese forces in the sector.

For Indian forces, movement in Arunachal Pradesh poses more of a challenge. Insufficient strategic infrastructure leaves troops with fewer transit options in the region. What's more, Arunachal Pradesh, which experiences some of the world's heaviest rainfall, is prone to landslides that often obstruct roadways. India's infrastructural shortcomings force New Delhi to stage its troops in forward positions close to the LAC. Though the country is trying to build roadways, rail networks and tunnels in the region to improve transport connectivity, for now, India's forces in Arunachal Pradesh are generally in static, blocking positions along the area's five river valleys.

Reviving a Dormant Dispute

The third key sector along the LAC, Sikkim, stands apart from the other two. Unlike Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh, for example, Sikkim has been considered an undisputed territory since 2003, when China recognized India's claim to the region. But as the recent events in the nearby Doklam Plateau illustrate, some territorial disagreements in and around the area are still unsettled.

India has the topographical advantage in Sikkim, making the sector a prime area from which to launch an offensive on nearby Chinese positions. China controls the adjacent Chumbi Valley, which extends south from the Tibetan Plateau at a general altitude of 3,000 meters. India, however, holds the heights to the south and west that tower more than 1,000 meters above the valley. From that vantage point, Indian forces can observe, attack and shell the S204 highway that runs through the valley. New Delhi, moreover, controls a small but important territory known as the Finger Area — a 1-kilometer patch of disputed land that is conducive to mechanized warfare and overlooks China's Sora Funnel.

Recognizing the advantage that the Finger Area affords it, India has begun deploying mechanized units equipped with T-72 tanks to the site. Indian forces positioned there could try to break out into the Tibetan Plateau and swing east to seal off the Chumbi Valley or proceed north toward China's critical Western Highway. A successful offensive in the sector would deliver a heavy blow to Beijing, disrupting strategic lateral communications along the LAC while also neutralizing the threat that Chinese forces in the Chumbi Valley pose to India's nearby Siliguri Corridor.

Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim and Doklam

China, well aware of this risk, has taken steps to address it. Beijing started claiming the Finger Area as Chinese territory in 2008 and began sending more frequent patrols there. At the same time, China has grown increasingly adamant in disputing Bhutan's claims to territory east of the Chumbi Valley, including the Doklam Plateau. Controlling the area, after all, would provide China with more of a buffer against possible Indian strikes on the Chumbi Valley and enable it to extend the S204 road farther east. To that end, Chinese troops tried to build a road through the Doklam Plateau toward the Jampheri ridge near Gymochen, where it insists the three-way border between China, India and Bhutan rightly belongs.

Command over the ridgeline would theoretically put Chinese troops in a better position to attack the Siliguri Corridor, though Indian forces in Sikkim could thwart such an offensive by striking the Chumbi Valley. Nevertheless, control of the Jampheri ridgeline would at least help China level the playing field in the sector. The strategic heights would give Chinese troops a clear view over some of the roadways into Sikkim, such as Highway 10. Furthermore, by laying claim to the disputed area, China would gain control of the Doka La pass — another point from which its forces could attack Sikkim from above. The strategy is nothing new; in 1967, Indian and Chinese forces fought over mountain passes in the same area. 

Fifty years later, China and India are in much the same position, using their respective advantages in each sector along the LAC to try to hold their ground. Either side could launch a punitive strike in these sectors as their border dispute escalates. India would probably choose to attack Aksai Chin from Ladakh or try to cut off the Chumbi Valley from Sikkim, while China would likely focus on Arunachal Pradesh. (Otherwise, it could go after the high ground near Sikkim to try to undermine New Delhi's advantage there.) But if a clash in one sector were to escalate, conflict could engulf the LAC in its entirety. 

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