According to a report by Chatham House, China has expanded roads, outposts, and compounds to support its troop deployments in the disputed Aksai Chin region. China has also established an ecosystem to support its troop deployments.
The report by the UK-based think tank is based on an analysis of satellite images captured in the six months since October 2022. It builds on other evidence of the massive escalation of infrastructure on the Chinese side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) since the beginning of a military standoff with India in May 2020.
According to the report from Chatham House, also known as the Royal Institute of International Affairs, satellite images of Aksai Chin reveal “expanded roads, outposts, and modern weatherproof camps equipped with parking areas, solar panels, and even helipads.”
According to the report, a new heliport is being constructed in contested territory, distant from the frontlines and near Aksi Chin Lake. According to the report, this facility’s 18 hangars and short runways for use by helicopters and potentially drones will “significantly enhance the operational capabilities” of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in and around Aksi Chin.
Using satellite images provided exclusively by Planet Labs, Hindustan Times reported on June 1 how China’s expansion of airfields along the LAC since 2020 has enabled the PLA to conduct a broader spectrum of operations and counter India’s comparative advantages in some areas.
The standoff at the border has brought India-China relations to their lowest point in six decades, particularly after a brutal conflict in June 2020 at Galwan Valley claimed the lives of at least 20 Indian soldiers and four Chinese troops. India’s senior leadership has maintained that relations cannot be normalised until the “abnormal” situation on the Line of Control (LAC) is resolved.
According to the report, in the Galwan Valley, a number of PLA bases connected by roads can now be seen ascending from the main standoff site along the frozen river’s route.
Significant Chinese activity is also present in the Depsang plains, one of the remaining LAC friction points in the Ladakh sector. The report noted that patrols appear to intend to put pressure on and impede the development of a strategic Indian airstrip at Daulat Beg Oldi, which functions as a logistics and transport base for Indian operations at high altitudes and is the world’s highest airstrip.
At Raki Nala, a river valley south of the Depsang plains, Chinese outposts are visible and have the potential to obstruct Indian patrols. At Pangong Lake, a bridge is nearing completion; once completed, it will facilitate the rapid deployment of Chinese forces from the PLA’s Rutog military garrison to mountain ridges overlooking the lake.
The proposed Chinese G695 highway, which is intended to connect Xinjiang with Tibet, is scheduled to be completed in 2035 and “will run the length of Aksai Chin through the Depsang Plains, south past the Galwan Valley, and towards Pangong Tso.”
The report referred to this as a “strategic artery that will connect the contested region to the Chinese mainland and provide the PLA with a new supply route.”
As a result of the “opaque nature of Chinese policymaking” under President Xi Jinping, the true motivations behind China’s sudden advance across the LAC are “probably known only to the highest echelons.” According to the report, the PLA is now firmly established in Aksai Chin and is likely to remain there.
“This means that India’s armed forces will have to match a large-scale and likely semi-permanent Chinese presence along the Aksai Chin border, possibly for years,” the report added.
India and China withdrew their frontline forces from Pangong Lake, Hot Springs, and Gogra after more than two dozen rounds of diplomatic and military discussions. However, disengagement and de-escalation at friction locations such as Depsang and Demchok have not advanced.