China’s construction of a bridge spanning a Himalayan lake that lies along the India-China border has reinforced concerns in New Delhi about the ramping up of military infrastructure by the Asian giant in contested areas along their frontier.
The bridge being built over Pangong Lake lies in territory that Beijing controls but is also claimed by India. It will enable Chinese troops to mobilize rapidly in the area where both sides were engaged in a prolonged military standoff, according to analysts.
Days after satellite pictures revealed the construction of the bridge, India said that it has been closely monitoring the construction activity. “This bridge is being constructed in areas that have been under illegal occupation by China for around 60 years now,” foreign ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said at a media briefing this week. “As you are well aware, India has never accepted such illegal occupation.”
In response, China’s foreign ministry said on Friday that its infrastructure construction is “aimed at safeguarding China's territorial sovereignty and security as well as peace and stability on the China-India border." Officials, however, did not refer directly to the bridge.
“The bridge will make it much easier for Chinese troops to access the north bank of the Pangong Lake from their military base in Tibet,” said Manoj Joshi, a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. “So they want to reinforce the north bank, which is a sensitive area for China because it provides access to a key Tibet highway.”
Two thirds of the glacial lake, situated above 4,000 meters in elevation, lies in Tibet, the rest extends into Ladakh in India.
Ladakh emerged as a flashpoint between the two countries in 2020, when India accused Chinese troops of intruding into its territory.
Although Indian and Chinese troops withdrew last year from the Pangong region, where they stood in close confrontation for nine months, Ladakh still remains heavily militarized. Both sides have deployed an estimated 50,000 troops in the region, as disputes along several other strategic locations continue to fester.
In recent years China has stepped up building military infrastructure, such as helipads, airstrips and roads all along its border with India, according to analyst Joshi. “They are pumping a lot of money into Tibet for development, and they want to ensure that the borders are well defended,” he says.
India is also accelerating projects to build roads and bridges to enable easier movement of troops and artillery as it confronts the new strategic reality of a more aggressive Beijing and a heavily militarized border.
Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh last week inaugurated 27 roads and bridge projects, most of which have been built to ease access for troops along the Indo-Tibetan border. Those projects include a road above 5,800 meters in eastern Ladakh.
Indian foreign ministry spokesman Bagchi told reporters Thursday that the government has raised the budget for border infrastructure and completed more roads and bridges than ever before.
However, analysts point out that India cannot match the infrastructure built by the Chinese. “To catch up with China is impossible although great efforts have been made in the last two or three years. But India has been very late in starting,” says Claude Arpi, a scholar on Tibet and an expert on India and China relations. “First of all, there is the issue of terrain. It is more mountainous on the Indian side, so it is far more challenging for India to build roads and bridges, whereas Tibet is a plateau.”
New Delhi flagged the construction of the bridge by China days before military commanders of the two countries meet to resolve the standoff in Ladakh. The dialogue on January 12 will be held three months after the last round of talks ended in a stalemate.
But the atmosphere between the two rivals has again soured since China announced it had given Chinese names to 15 places in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which Beijing claims as South Tibet. India slammed the announcement, calling it a “ridiculous exercise to support untenable territorial claims.”