First move

Special Report

Cutting Lhasa-Xinjiang road connectivity
A nation that feels itself hemmed in by hostile neighbors needs to look for ways to preserve its own national interests through diplomatic means before it rushes into a conflict situation that will exacerbate the collusive arrangement that it sees as a threat.

In the case of India, the China-Pak Economic Corridor being constructed through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir is an emerging threat because it sanctifies the illegal occupation of large sections of the former princely State of Jammu and Kashmir which had acceded to India in 1947.

To test protestations of goodneighborliness even while subjecting India to terrorist attacks as by Pakistan or executing deep inroads into the Himalayan hinterland even as the Chinese President is visiting India should forcefully suggest it should not be left out of new arrangements for economic growth and connectivity in the region.

Since there is a dispute then there should be no unilateral attempt to create infrastructure that would exclude India and impose a fait accompli.

As it is Pakistan has restricted India-Afghan trade and implicitly held out the possibility that consignments could be attacked by terrorist groups just as had been done to US supplies through Karachi port and the Khyber Pass to Afghanistan.

Convoys were frequently attacked and looted-at one time aero-engines for helicopters operating in Afghanistan were being sold to foreigners and it is suspected that the Americans paid to buy back their own engines.

India cannot afford that luxury and it needs to have clear national commitment from Pakistan for safety of Indian trade passing through Pakistan to Afghanistan.

Claims to being eager to give safe passage assurances have already foundered on repeated closure of trade between the Indian held Kashmir and the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir when consignments of goods from PoK were discovered to contain drugs.

For days on end the Pakistanis had held up truckloads of goods that were being carried by Indian carriers till the defaulting drug peddler was released.

One way of ensuring unrestricted trade access to Afghanistan and beyond to the Central Asian Republics of the former Soviet Union is through an alternate route that bypasses Pakistan.

A joint-venture road/rail link through the Chinese-held Shakshgam salient of Jammu and Kashmirin the north and the Wakhan panhandle can recreate age-old overland links not just with Afghanistan but also the Central Asia Republics.

It will complement and supplement the sea-road-rail link through the Iranian port of Chahbahar that is currently being constructed.

If there was a slowing down of that project because of the international sanctions imposed through the UN for Iran’s nuclear project, that restriction has now been removed by the Iran-US nuclear deal that allows civil use of nuclear energy but ensures that there can be no military offshoots.

The important aspect of the proposal for a road/rail link through Shakshgam or even Aksai Chin (which is also under Chinese occupation) is the attitude displayed by China.

A refusal would signal an intention of imposing a steel collar around India’s neck and restrict its regional connectivity.

China has promised to extend the Quinghai-Tibet Railway (QTR) link from Lhasa southwards to the Nepal border and offered to help connect the capital Kathmandu to the QTR.

India can join a multinational consortium to connect Allahabad and Gorakhpur to Kathmandu and across Aksai Chin to reach Afghanistan.

The Indian portion could begin with the port city of Mumbai giving Nepal and China access to the Arabian Sea.

If these projects do not fructify because China is more interested in hemming Indian in then India retains the right to protect its own national interests by disrupting the Economic Corridor anywhere along the PoK.

That would be the first target that would serve India’s purpose of exerting its sovereignty over the whole of the Jammu and Kashmir and truly hurt the Sino-Pak all-weather friendship.

Divided opinion

There is one school of thought that holds that the land route connecting the Tibet Autonomous Region with the Xinjiang military region should be high on India’s list of targets.

As military objectives all Chinese infrastructure north of the Himalayas should be targeted by Indian Sukhoi-30 long-range interdictors.

Nonetheless the order of priority must begin with the proposed Economic Corridor because it is being set up in territory that belongs to India and is in illegal occupation of both Pakistan and China.

The Corridor is intended to connect Gwadar port on the Balochistan coast to Urumqui in Xinjiang Province along the western boundary with the Central Asian Republics.

The Lhasa-Xinjiang connection is secondary. It does facilitate the north-south transportation of military wherewithal but it is in the east-west corridors that the lines of communication connect it to the productive military factories in Chengdu and Sichuan military districts.

China has recently reorganized its seven military districts into five Theatre Commands of which the largest in the Central Theatre Command stretching from Chengdu in the east to the Khazakhistan border in the west.

It includes the Chinese rocketry complex at Lop Nor. It lies directly north of the Himalayan range from Arunachal Pradesh to Jammu and Kashmir and extends northwards to the Mongolian-Russian tri-junction. Most of Chinese production centres lie in the Southern and Northern Theatre Commands and the products are transported by road and rail to the Central Theatre Command.

Given this picture of the likely battlefield, Indian air effort will have to pick off the hundreds of bridges that facilitate road and rail transportation throughout China-the QTR alone has more than 600 bridges in a 2,000 km journey from Xining northeast of Lhasa.

In a situation of overt hostilities India will have to be able to disrupt China’s ability to deploy the 30,000 troops at any given point along the periphery at short notice.

That could become the spearhead for deep penetration operations. This implies rapid and precise strikes by India against Chinese lines of communication both east-west and north-south within the Central Theatre Command.

A close scrutiny of several of the bridges that China has created to carry its many roads through riverine territory shows them to be excessively stocky.

This indicates that a great deal of additional steel and cement concrete has been used to ensure an ability to withstand the shock of a direct strike by bombs and missiles.

Instead of discovering this only at the last minute or only after an abortive strike as happened during the Kargil war where obvious lessons from the Afghanistan war were not heeded, India cannot afford the luxury of learning on the job vis-à-vis the Chinese.

This kind of technical homework will have to be conducted now during peacetime.

The vulnerable areas are the top of the carriageway and the warhead must have more concussive power than the laser guided 1000 kg bomb.

The warhead should be of fuel-air explosive (FAE) so that the explosion at the top of the pier will shred not only the carriageway but also to some extent pulverize the supporting pier.

Such a kind of damage over riverine territory will require a greater effort in civil reconstructive engineering than one over land.