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New Military Focus on Eastern Arunachal After Tawang is a Long-Pending Move at ‘Chinese Checkers’

The remote eastern districts of Arunachal Pradesh bordering the Line of Actual Control (LAC) have lately been garnering some new-found attention.

As I gathered during a trip earlier this month to Kibithu, which houses India’s easternmost military garrison, now known as the General Bipin Rawat Military Garrison, new infrastructure projects and a greater military capability development are slowly taking shape in the once-neglected eastern Arunachal Pradesh. Kibithu is located in the border district of Anjaw in Arunachal Pradesh.

My travel, through the arduous mountainous roads from Tezu to Kibithu, saw road and bridges under construction at multiple points. Officials told me that ammunition storage facilities and helipads for the Chinook helicopters at nearly forward locations are being constructed and communications infrastructure close to the LAC is being strengthened with laying of Optical Fibre Cables till the forward posts along the LAC and setting up of satellite terminals.

The Army has also deployed latest military weapons and equipment such as the M777 howitzers, new small arms and indigenous SWITCH UAVs for upping intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) activities along the LAC, as it has reoriented itself in the last two years to veer away from counter insurgency duties in the Northeast — barring one Laipuli-based mountain brigade — to focus entirely on the LAC.

The flurry of activities in these districts along the LAC and a spotlight on this region marks a welcome shift from the past when India’s centre of focus in the northeast was the strategic Tawang sector.

Why Tawang Has Been the Focus

Militarily, traditional threats to India from China have been estimated to be from two strategic tri-junctions—Tawang and the Chumbi valley—with the former located at Nepal-Tibet border and the latter at the China-Bhutan junction.

India had focused on putting its military might in these two locations and has fortified them phenomenally over the years taking into account the perceived Chinese political-military objective were here.

In fact, the 2017 military standoff with China at Doklam, and the latest Chinese claims to the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary in eastern Bhutan are said to be Chinese attempt to touch India’s sensitivities.

Added to this, is China’s long-standing interest in Tawang over the rest of Arunachal Pradesh or what is known as RALP in military parlance is also fuelled by political and cultural factors. A 2017 report by CNN said the Tawang monastery is the point of power play in the internal politics of Tibet.

Building infrastructure and military fortification thus took a backseat in the eastern districts of Arunachal Pradesh, even as this region has several disputed points along the LAC which includes Fishtail 1 and 2, and Dichu and the forested Asaphila, which have seen frequent Chinese transgressions in the past.

Much of India’s war with China in 1962 was also fought in these areas, including the famous Battle of Walong near Kibithu.

Officers in the military compared the Chinese military mindset and activities in this region to the Chinese Checkers game which involves occupying spaces — physically on the ground and in the mind.

“The Chinese have been rapidly making inroads into areas opposite eastern districts of Arunachal Pradesh. They are constructing villages, roads and other infrastructure here in a bid to occupy spaces, despite the lack of specific objectives here,” an officer said.

“While militarily Tawang will always remain a priority, given its strategic location, this is how China is making RALP important for India in the long run,” the officer told me.

India’s Responses in Eastern Arunachal Pradesh

India, thus, is waking up to the emerging challenges here and slowly preparing its responses in anticipation to them—through reorientation of the Army to move out of counter-intelligence duties to put the focus on LAC, developing infrastructure for faster mobilisation of troops and equipment to the LAC and deploying latest weapons systems close to the borders.

The state government has also taken up an ambitious project of developing model villages along the LAC in eastern Arunchal Pradesh — at the Kaho, Musai and Kibithu — in response to Chinese model villages being built across the LAC.

This, along with the Centre’s Vibrant Villages programme, is aimed at increasing livelihood opportunities for the villagers at the border villages, so that they do not migrate to the hinterland in search for jobs and continue maintaining the first line of defence.

A lot of work needs to be done, which will take several years of focused government and military efforts, with harsh weather conditions and arduous terrains adding to the difficulties.

Till 1997, there were no roads to reach the far-flung Kibithu and the base was air maintained. A foot suspension bridge was the only link to the eastern bank of the Lohit river. There is a road now, but that’s under-construction at multiple points.

Indian troops deployed in Kibithu patrol the LAC around twice a month, but it still takes a week or more for a long-range patrol to reach the border.

The new focus on the rest of Arunachal Pradesh, especially on the remote districts in the eastern part of the state is part of an evolving military strategy aimed at thwarting newer Chinese threats——by putting in more boots on ground, developing infrastructure for their mobilization, keeping the LAC under constant surveillance and deploying the latest weapons systems for deterrence.

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