NEW DELHI —
India has opened its longest bridge in the country’s remote northeast to boost its defense infrastructure close to its contested border with China. The bridge is one of several projects that have been accelerated to facilitate movement of armed forces and artillery to Arunachal Pradesh state, which China claims as its own.
The 9.15-kilometer Dhola Sadiya bridge over Brahmaputra river will give faster and easier access to the Himalayan state, which China refers to as South Tibet.
The bridge has been designed to withstand the weight of 60-ton battle tanks.
Inaugurating the project on a day that he completed three years in power, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, however, focused not on the defense, but the economic benefits of a project that will also improve connectivity in a remote region where infrastructure has been poor.
He said it would speed up development in both Arunachal Pradesh and Assam states and help tens of thousands of farmers gain access to new markets. “It will not just save time and money, it will usher in an economic revolution,” said Modi.
Since taking office in 2014, Modi’s government has made upgrading infrastructure a priority to propel economic growth.
This includes several key projects in border regions in northeastern states that his government says are needed to strengthen Indian defenses.
The policy marks a strategic shift in India’s strategy, which for decades did not upgrade infrastructure in the region believing that the improvements could be used by Chinese troops to get easy access to India. India and China fought a brief war in 1962, and despite prolonged negotiations, parts of their border are still disputed.
Former Major General and security analyst Dipankar Banerjee says that in the past it was felt that “close to the border if you built roads, then it could perhaps be used for offensive purpose by either side. So there was some constraint on building roads.”
By next year, India also hopes to complete a two-lane road to a remote but strategic border area in Arunachal Pradesh where all military supplies have to be ferried by helicopter. Building the road along near vertical Himalayan slopes is an engineering challenge that involves transporting even road building equipment via helicopters.
Transport network upgrades
Another project focuses on upgrading landing grounds for heavy transport aircraft. Indian analysts say these projects will help close a gap with the huge transport network China has built on its side of the border. “China has got much better infrastructure, that is one of the major issues,” says Banerjee.
Last week, Home Minister Rajnath Singh called on troops guarding the border to remain vigilant against Chinese transgressions. "We want peace, but peace with honor. We need to be capable of deterring anyone who may think we are weak," Singh said.
Ties between the two countries have deteriorated in the past year. Last month, China voiced strident objections to a visit by Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama to Arunachal Pradesh and warned that the trip to a disputed region that it claims as its own would impact ties. The visit prompted junior Defense Minister Kiren Rijiu to say that “Arunachal Pradesh is part of India and that reality will not change.”