China holds live-fire drills opposite Arunachal amid border standoff

China on Monday escalated its “mind games” with India, by holding live-fire exercises in Tibet, in an area facing Arunachal Pradesh — the State which it calls South Tibet — amid the standoff between Chinese and Indian troops in Doklam area in the Sikkim section of the China-India frontier. 

The state-run tabloid Global Times, citing the China Central Television (CCTV) said that the exercise was conducted by a brigade, which was part of the Tibet Military Command of the People's Liberation Army (PLA). The state-run broadcaster also said that the brigade has long been stationed around the middle and lower reaches of the Yarlung Zangbo River, which becomes the Siang and the Brahmaputra after crossing Chinese territory. The brigade is responsible for front-line combat missions, and part of the two brigades comprising the Tibet Military Command.

In May 2016, China raised the status of the Tibet Military Command, as part of the overall military reforms, which included the formation of integrated tri-service regional theater commands, geared towards joint operations.

Broadening area of conflict

Analysts say that China was sending several messages to India by conducting the exercise. China appeared willing to broaden a possible area of conflict beyond the current focus of the standoff, by including Arunachal Pradesh, the scene of the 1962 war, within its ambit.

The exercises per se appeared carefully calibrated, and were essentially “defensive” and in orientation, where the testing of Chinese air defences, were one of the major components of the exercise. The Global Times pointed out that a video of the drills showed radar units identifying enemy aircraft and soldiers using anti-aircraft artillery to annihilate targets. There was no reference to the use of air power, including strike aircraft, capable of offensive operation in the drills. 

Towards ground operations

The manoeuvres also seemed essentially geared towards ground operations, including special operations, where heavy artillery and missiles were used to destroy bunkers. The posted video showed
soldiers using anti-tank grenades and missiles against bunkers and howitzers for artillery coverage. The write-up added that the 11-hour drills focused on “quick delivery of troops” in coordination with different military units engaged in joint attacks.

The area of the exercise is already well connected by road from Lhasa, the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). But China may be able to concentrate forces in much larger numbers in the future once the proposed railway from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province is linked to Nyingchi —the Chinese prefecture facing Arunachal Pradesh — is competed. Chengdu is the headquarters of China's Western Theater  Command, which covers the border provinces of Tibet and Xinjiang.

In the past, Chinese officials have said that the first section of the Sichuan-Tibet railway will branch from the already existing Lhasa to Shigatse rail line. From the junction at Xierong on the existing track, the first section of the Sichuan-Tibet railway will end at Bayi, in the strategic Nyingchi prefecture.

Strategically important area

Nyingchi is not far from the Great Bend of the Brahmaputra River, which takes a U-turn, and flows swiftly into India with great force, encountering a steep drop of 3,000 meters over approximately 200 km.

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