India must keep talking, while building more border roads
India's ongoing build-up along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the de facto border with China, has run into trouble at Daulat Beg Oldi in Ladakh, where - as in the lead-up to 1962 - its operational ambitions have outpaced the country's logistics. Today, a strong patrol from the People's Liberation Army (PLA) has parked itself on territory India claims, benefiting from easy access over a good Chinese road across the Depsang Plains. Meanwhile, the Indian army's access to that area is mainly through a recently reactivated, weather-dependent landing ground. Without the ability to build up force, the army has little choice but to negotiate. The PLA will demand operational concessions, most likely the withdrawal of Indian defences in some other contested sector.
While it is necessary to acknowledge this tactical weakness, it must not be allowed to persist. Over the preceding decade, New Delhi has taken steps to translate India's long-standing disadvantage on the LAC into parity. Additional forces have been sanctioned, including a mountain strike corps, two mountain divisions and two armoured brigades; and forces have been relocated to the LAC from Kashmir and the Indo-Pakistan border. Air power and air defence capabilities have been greatly enhanced and a network of roads sanctioned.
But little of this has come up on the ground yet, especially communications infrastructure. Without a road network, the cruel Himalayan terrain reduces even the largest divisions to isolated groups of soldiers sitting on widely separated hilltops. For decades, New Delhi has failed to speed up road building, blaming in turn state governments for not providing land; the environment ministry for blocking construction; the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) for lacking capacity to take on so many projects at the same time; geological difficulties; and even the Chinese for blocking road construction close to the border.
New Delhi must initiate an emergency inter-agency drive to cut through the difficulties and cut the roads through the hills. A Strategic Roads Plan already exists, crafted by Shyam Saran, a former special advisor to the prime minister who invested years of tramping around the borders into this comprehensive document. The BRO roads, the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana and the special border area schemes need to be coordinated to optimise effort and expense. And a high-powered government panel, perhaps a group of ministers (GoM), must be charged with implementing the scheme in a time-bound manner.
Until this network of new Indian roads substantially changes the military equation on the ground, India has little choice but to hasten softly in its military build-up. Beijing's proposal to freeze troop levels on the LAC stems from the confidence that its enviable infrastructure in Tibet acts as a force multiplier, permitting its relatively small number of troops to concentrate and disperse rapidly, running rings around India's immobile pickets. While Beijing can appear reasonable in asking for troop levels to be frozen, it cannot legitimately request a freeze on road building, which also benefits border populations. And as India changes ground realities, it must face the current ones, too - and keep talking with the Chinese army to ensure that tensions do not get out of hand.