Are China’s border incursions only an exercise in paranoia?

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Chinese President Xi Jinping is seen in front of a PLA guard of honour. Photo: REUTERS/Jason Lee

Military strategists are building up China’s soft security underbelly in the frigid Tibetan plateaus bordering India as they plan for a possible two-front war during any invasion of the renegade island of Taiwan.

Regional rivals India and Japan, who are wary of China’s military build-up, have long known that the People’s Liberation Army would be at its weakest if New Delhi took advantage of troop relocations to Taiwan by chipping away at Chinese territory in Doklam’s tablelands and valleys.

Known by Beijing as Donglang, the narrow slice of territory is claimed by China and Bhutan. India has no claims of its own but backs Bhutan because Doklam provides a buffer zone for nearby West Bengal state.

In June last year about 270 Indian troops intervened when the PLA began extending a road across the plateau to Jampheri Ridge, which China considers its territory but is regarded as part of Bhutan by the Bhutanese and Indians. China’s construction crew eventually pulled out as winter arrived, but tensions on the plateau remain high.

The road extensions are part of a concerted effort by China to boost access to the region, with the PLA long recognising that weak logistics and transport links could undermine its efforts to quickly move in reinforcements in the event of a border confrontation. Some say it has little choice: India enjoys a geographical and terrain advantage.

 

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on September 4, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Kenzaburo Fukuhara

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: Reuters/Kenzaburo Fukuhara

Recent reports by Indian media indicate that the PLA has resumed fortification of the border area, adding several new helipads and barracks, and fuelling speculation of another military stand-off. Warmer conditions will allow easier access around mid-year.

Veteran military commentator Andrei Chang said in a recent column that Beijing’s actions on the plateau could be defensive, as it could argue it needs to counter India’s troops strength. However, New Delhi will probably interpret the move as a further provocation.

Beijing feels it has to prepare for every scenario, and that a secondary confrontation must not be allowed to hold it back from claiming Taiwan. But Chang argued that China’s fears of being “stabbed in the back” by India have probably been over-blown.

“From my interactions with Indian generals and scholars, New Delhi may not have any intention to pick a fight in China’s southwest when the PLA is busy tackling the Taiwanese military … And my [Indian] sources also suggest Beijing is just spooking itself with paranoia.”

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (left) shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping prior to a bilateral meeting at the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, on July 8, 2017. Photo: Yomiuri Shimbun

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (left) shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping prior to a bilateral meeting at the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, on July 8, 2017. Photo: Yomiuri Shimbun

China also seems to be getting twitchy over Japan, as PLA spy planes and fighters have been spotted in Japanese airspace over the Tsushima Strait since December, triggering interceptions by the Japan Air Self-Defense Force.

Analysts say that Beijing reckons its best defensive strategy on the eastern front would be to go on the offensive, since the US and Japan, Taiwan’s most likely allies, will step in the moment Beijing pulls the trigger. Hence China’s unease over plans by Tokyo to install the land-based RIM-161 Standard Missile 3 anti-missile system.

Ramping up air and sea patrols in the East China Sea and sending  planes skimming along Japan’s borders are tactics designed to send a clear message to Tokyo not to meddle as the heat rises on Taiwan. But they have already backfired: Japan has responded by beefing up its forces and the US is parking more jets and bombers in the Far East.

A dozen of the US Airforce’s crack F-35A superfighters were sent to Okinawa in December, and a variation assembled by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries entered into service in Japan in January.

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