China is strengthening connectivity and increasing its depth in Chumbi valley in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), close to India’s strategic and vulnerable Siliguri corridor , also called Chicken’s neck, according to official sources. Eastern Commander Lt. Gen. Manoj Pande recently termed Siliguri “sensitive”.
In its just released annual report 2021 to the U.S. Congress on military and security developments involving the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Department of Defence (DoD) noted that despite the ongoing diplomatic and military dialogues to reduce border tensions, the PRC has “continued taking incremental and tactical actions to press its claims at the Line of Actual Control [LAC].”
“China is building an alternative axis in the Chumbi valley, which is close to the Siliguri corridor. They are increasing their depth by building roads through Bhutanese territory,” an official source said. By this it was securing its routes while putting pressure on the Siliguri corridor, which was vital for India , two officials independently stated.
High resolution satellite images that came out last year had shown China building roads along the Torsa river area through Bhutanese territory.
In this context, the recent Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on a three-step road map between Bhutan and China to speed up their talks for boundary resolution was significant and could have implications for India, a third defence official said on condition of anonymity.
The Siliguri corridor, located in West Bengal, is a stretch of land bordering Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal. It measures approximately 170X60km and at the narrowest, it is about 20-22 km.
Narrow piece of land
In a recent conversation, Lt. Gen. Pande observed that the geostrategic significance of the Siliguri corridor came about in terms of it being a narrow piece of land that connects the northeast to the rest of the country through which major national highways, railway line, pipelines, Off-Shore Cable (OFC) connectivity and the rest pass. “It also stems from the fact that the Chumbi valley of the TAR and its proximity to the Siliguri corridor,” he stated.
In addition, Lt Gen Pande explained, the other aspect was the demography and its dynamics in that area where there were different demographic composition and different demographic groups who resided there and “related challenges of radicalisation and separatist tendencies whose activities can be inimical to our security interest.”
“So, yes, the Siliguri corridor is sensitive to us,” he remarked.
On the efforts to address this issue, he stressed that they were looking at a ‘whole of the nation approach’, wherein not only the security forces, the military and certain other Cenral Armed Police Forces (CAPF), but also the Governments of the States around the Siliguri corridor and Central agencies were all working together in a coordinated manner to “mitigate this threat in normal times, the hybrid threat as and when it manifests as also during conflict conditions.”
“Only recently, we have set up a joint coordinating centre under the Army and that has proved to be effective to coordinate actions of all agencies that work there,” he said. He pointed out that at the national level there was a thought process to look at alternate means in terms of economic activities etc to mitigate this threat to the Siliguri corridor.
PLA recruitment drive
The PLA (Peoples Liberation Army) had conducted a month-long recruitment drive in Chumbi valley of around 400 Tibetan persons in August, according to intelligence inputs. The aim was to recruit at least one Tibetan aged 18-40 an household into the PLA militia, one official said, citing the inputs.
“The new recruits from Phari Dzong and Yatung will undergo one-year training at the PLA facilities in Lhasa,” the official disclosed. After the training, they were likely to be deployed on the India-China border, he added.
Earlier in July 2021, the PLA conducted a recruitment drive in Shiquanhe area in Ngari prefecture opposite eastern Ladakh. The recent recruitment of Tibetans into its ranks assume significance in the backdrop of the current stand-off after the Indian Army employed the Special Frontier Force (SFF), comprising Tibetans, to dominate some peaks in the Kailash range on the south bank of Pangong Tso (lake) on the Indian side of the LAC last August.
Village in disputed territory
On China’s continued build-up along the LAC, the DoD annual report revealed: “Sometime in 2020, the PRC built a large 100-home civilian village inside disputed territory between the PRC’s Tibet Autonomous Region and India’s Arunachal Pradesh state in the eastern sector of the LAC.”
Responding to questions on the Chinese “model villages” close to the LAC, Lt. Gen. Pande noted last month that the concern was the dual use nature, civil and military, of these villages. “We have taken note of these in our operational plans,” he observed.
India is also now looking at a plan to populate the border areas along the LAC with the local population.
The DoD report said that Beijing, asserting that its deployments close to the LAC were in response to Indian provocation, had refused to withdraw any forces until India’s forces withdrew behind the PRC’s version of the LAC and ceased infrastructure improvements in the area.
“Beginning in May 2020, the PLA launched incursions into customarily Indian-controlled territory across the border and has concentrated troops at several stand-off locations along the LAC,” the report pointed to the stand-off in eastern Ladakh last year.
It highlighted that the negotiations since between Corps Commanders had yielded “limited disengagement” at “specific areas” along the LAC. As of June 2021, India and China continued to maintain large-scale deployments along the LAC and made preparations to sustain these forces.