Chinese Build-up along Ladakh-Xinjiang Border Jeopardises India’s Security

March 18, 2022

The recent India-China Corps Commander meeting held at the Chushul-Moldo border meeting point on the Indian side on March 11, 2022, has yielded no result and remained “inconclusive.” The Joint statement of the 15th round of the bilateral military meeting since the last 20 months following the violent Galwan clash (June 2020) states that “the two sides had a detailed exchange of views in this regard, in keeping with the guidance provided by the state leaders to work for the resolution of the remaining issues at the earliest.”[1] It means, a) the Ladakh-Xinjiang border between India and China will remain tense in the coming times, and b) the Chinese security build up along this border will continue to haunt India till any conclusion with regard to their cantankerous border issues is reached.

It is noteworthy to mention here that the Chinese security build-up along the Ladakh-Xinjiang border dates back to 1949. Immediately after the restive province of Xinjiang was “peacefully liberated” and incorporated in the People’s Republic of China in September 1949, the Chinese central government made security and stability of Xinjiang as the “pretext” to establish robust security infrastructure in Xinjiang, which has a nearly 350-km long border with India. China eyed India with suspicion over Indian support to Turkic Uyghur Muslims, the majority ethnic group in Xinjiang. The reasons are the age-old linkage between the people of India and Xinjiang and, most importantly, sympathetic view from the Indian establishment as India had a sizable number of Muslims. China apprehended India as one of the three countries (the US and Russia are the other two) who can use the “Uyghur card” against her. The Chinese fear was corroborated by the relationship between India and the USSR in the post-1949 period. The Chinese suspicion on India grew further when in 1950, two top Uyghur leaders, Mohammad Amin Bughra and Isa Yusuf Alptekin, left Xinjiang with 200 Uyghur families from Yarkand for Kashmir to seek asylum in India. Since both Bughra and Alptekin were spearheading the Uyghur movement in Xinjiang for a separate independent republic, the Mao Zedong government in China suspected Indian patronage to these two Uyghur leaders. However, this was proved wrong after Bughra and Alptekin left for Turkey in 1950 without getting any patronage or help from India.  

The Chinese perfidy began in the middle of the 1950s and later in the early part of the 1960s. For instance, in 1957, China constructed the Xinjiang-Tibet Highway (Highway G-219) that passes through the Indian region of Aksai Chin. This highway not only legitimised Chinese claim over Aksai Chin, an Indian territory, which is now part of the southwestern part of Khotan Prefecture in Xinjiang but also paved the way for greater security build-up along the border. Furthermore, China established the Lop Nur nuclear test base on October 16, 1959, with Soviet help, located in Xinjiang, just four days before unleashing a month-long brutal war against India in 1962 (20 October-21 November). Chinese sinister designs along the Ladakh-Xinjiang border came into light when China took control of the Indian territory of Shaksgam valley in 1963 (which was occupied by Pakistan since 1948) as part of a boundary pact with Pakistan. In short, China occupies nearly 45,000 sq km of Indian territory [Aksai Chin (38,000 sq km) plus Shaksgam Valley (6,993 sq km)], which have immense strategic importance for India in the Himalayan belt.

In the post-Cold War period, China considered Xinjiang as “strategically important” because of its border with eight countries of Europe (Russia), Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) and South Asia (India, Pakistan & Afghanistan). China dubbed this “hub of the country’s mineral and natural resources” as the “gateway to Central Asia”. The establishment of the One Belt One Road (OBOR) turned Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in September 2013 paved the way for China’s geopolitical, geostrategic and geoeconomic agendas across the region. China has been pushing for China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) since 2015 as the most critical segment of BRI. While projecting Xinjiang as a victim of “three evil forces” (separatism, religious extremism and terrorism), China has initiated massive “securitisation in Xinjiang” since China joined the “Global War on Terrorism” in October 2001. This has been spruced up after Xi Jinping became the President of China in 2011-12, who in the name of building an “iron/steel Great Wall” against the so-called three evil forces. The “securitisation” of Xinjiang directly affects India’s security, and Ladakh bears the brunt because of its direct border with the region.

Since 2013, China has been improvising road and military infrastructure in the Shaksgam valley. Satellite images accessed by The Print (January 15 2018) uncovered construction of roads and establishment of two military posts activity in Shaksgam (south of the Strategic Karakoram Pass) by China immediately after the Doklam standoff ended on August 28, 2017 (between September 2017 and February 2018). The importance of this construction activity stems from the fact that it opens up “an additional avenue of approach for Chinese troops along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Shaksgam valley area.”

Most importantly, China’s independent Western Military Theater Command (one of its five theatre commands) is located in Xinjiang with 70,000 to 100, 000 military personnel, which manages the Chinese border with India. China has not stopped its fissiparous tendencies against India. In the last five years or so, China has made massive military modernisation and created sophisticated security infrastructure along the Xinjiang-Ladakh border. A number of troops in Aksai Chin with armour artillery, air defence, drones, helicopters, air support and mechanised infantry constitute Southern Xinjiang Military District’s “primary operational reserve”, which are earmarked as “first responders to any operational crisis in the region.” Joint Logistics Support Force (JLSF), providing a real-world scenario in an expeditionary setting, was established in 2016. It conducted one significant exercise of its own, the Joint Logistics 2018-B, focusing on long-distance manoeuvres. In addition, China’s National Development and Reform Commission and the Civil Aviation Administration approved the construction of an airport on June 17, 2017 (just a day after the Doklam Stand-off started on June 16, 2017) close to the Indian border (Aksai Chin) at the cost of 104 million US dollars, which has become operational just within three and half years on December 26, 2020. In a significant show of strength, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Ground Force staged “143 pieces of armour under tarps” at Shahidula (Xaidulla) in Xinjiang, north of the Karakoram Pass in late 2019. The strategic long-range bombers, H-6Ks (CJ 20), have been stationed in Kashgar in Xinjiang since 2020. The aforesaid military arrangement poses an insurmountable challenge to India, especially Ladakh.

Chinese security build up in the post-Galwan period has sped up by leaps and bounds with new airports, road infrastructure and military airbases are either coming up or being spruced up as part of China’s “active defence” posture, which has been defined as a focus on “rapid mobility and concentrating offensive capability to destroy an adversary’s retaliatory capacity.” For example, nearly three weeks before the violent Galwan incident (June 2020), China continued building airport infrastructure close to the Indian border. On April 26, 2020, the construction work of an airport at the Pamir Plateau started at an elevation of 4,500 metres at the cost of $230 million. According to Indian government sources, China has built at least eight key roads towards the LAC from the G219 highway, including roads from Kangxiwar (Xinjiang) to the Karakoram Pass in the north and other routes from lake Tianshuihai (Xinjiang) towards Galwan valley and its north. Chinese CCTV reported that PLA troops from the Xinjiang military district have been carrying out high-altitude live-fire assault ammunition training and military exercises in the Karakoram mountains at regular intervals to eliminate hostile tank troops and military outposts. New satellite images show that Xinjiang’s Malan airbase is hosting a secretive unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), fuelling speculation that it could be a “hypersonic” drone.[2]

Further, three airbases opposite eastern Ladakh (Kashgar, Hotan and Ngari Gunsa) have been under the constant watch of Indian military intelligence. Similarly, the Shakche airbase is rapidly developing into a military airbase fit for fighter operations. The satellite imagery in September 2021 showed a PLA helicopter base under construction in Aksai Chin, which is located 130 kilometres from Galwan Valley and 147 km away from Daulat Beg Oldi, the two most important Indian strategic points along the Ladakh-Xinjiang border. Chinese media reported in September 2021 regarding the construction of 30 airports for the Western Theater Command, out of which some nine airports are close to the Xinjiang-Ladakh border. According to the Global Times report on January 18 2022, a regiment affiliated with the PLA Xinjiang Military Command added to its arsenal the sophisticated HQ-17A air defence missile system, the PCL-181 155-millimetre-calibre (155mm) self-propelled howitzer and the PHL-11 122-millimetre-calibre (122mm) modularised multiple rocket launcher systems.

Rapid military and infrastructure activities in the Chinese occupied Aksai Chin and Shaksgam Valley in the last couple of years are a cause of serious concern and pose a serious challenge to India’s security and stability in the Himalayan frontier. Chinese target is Ladakh, which has a border with two restive provinces of China - Xinjiang and Tibet. The continuous process of building infrastructure facilities in recent years provides the Chinese with the much-needed leeway for better patrolling and movement of troops, which in turn can mobilise Chinese forces in case of any exigency or war with India. Besides, the Chinese evil eye on Siachen is a cause of grave concern for India as the surrounding borderlines are under Chinese control. In this context, it is important to highlight Indian Army Chief General M M Naravane’s annual press conference ahead of the Army Day in January 2020. General Naravane, while apprehending that both Pakistan and China can collude in the areas near Siachen Glacier and Shaksgam, stated: “We must not lose sight where 'collusivity' (sic) can happen. The collusion can either be physical or in many other spheres. On the land border, the two countries are closest to each other in Siachen and Shaksgam Valley. At one point, the threat was more on the western front, but now we feel both western and northern frontiers are equally important. Siachen is very important to us where one formation is looking after western and northern fronts. It is strategically important. It is from there where collusion can happen.” [3]

The world has been passing through a critical phase since mid-2021. With the withdrawal of US-led international assistance forces from Afghanistan in mid- August 2021, the crises in Kazakhstan in January 2022 and the ongoing Ukraine-Russia, the entire world, including India, is convinced of an aggressive response from China in Indo-Pacific, even in the Himalayan region. Amidst the constant Chinese threat along the Xinjiang-Ladakh border in the past few years, the protection of Ladakh Union Territory, especially the Siachen glacier, has been the top priority for the Indian government. India has not only initiated an active, assertive or aggressive political and diplomatic engagement with China but also mobilised the international community against sinister Chinese designs. For instance, Foreign ministers and Defence Ministers of both countries have met in a third country (Moscow) last year. The recent announcement of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visiting India towards the end of March this year is seen as a welcome step as there has been no visit of leaders from both sides in the last two years since the Covid-19 outbreak at the beginning of 2020. Political and diplomatic dialogue between India and China is important as many issues, and irritants between the two countries have been resolved earlier and can be resolved through it. The military leadership of both the neighbours have met 15 times after the Galwan clash, the latest being held recently on March 11, 2022. Nothing substantial has been achieved so far. These talks should continue to work as a stepping stone to the political and diplomatic dialogue. In addition, the need of the hour (for India) is to make its defence forces/intelligence to be cautious and extra-vigilant. The focus on infrastructure development in the border areas of Ladakh, which the Indian government has done on a massive scale, should be expedited along with the modernisation of the Indian military, especially in the cyber domain, is key to achieve the much needed strategic advantage in the Himalayan region. The proposed 3.8 lakh crore rupees in the Indian budget this year (2022-2023) for defence purposes could be a pointer in this regard.


[1] “15th round of India-China border talks ends, both sides to maintain dialogue to resolve standoff”, New Indian Express, March 12, 2022,…

[2] “Satellite Images Show China’s Xinjiang Airbase Near The Indian Border Is Hosting ‘Hypersonic’ Drones”, Eurasian Times, July 05, 2021,

[3]“China, Pak can collude near Siachen, Shaksgam valley”', Deccan Herald, January 11, 2020,…

Author Note
Mahesh Ranjan Debata teaches at the Centre for Inner Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi