India takes the high ground against China
By Sudha Ramachandran
BANGALORE - India has reopened its Daulat Beg Oldi airfield in Ladakh in Jammu
and Kashmir after a gap of more than four decades. Located a stone's throw from
Aksai Chin - a part of Jammu and Kashmir province that has been under Chinese
occupation since 1962 - the Daulat Beg Oldi airfield will improve India's
logistical support to its troops deployed along its 4,057-kilometer disputed
frontier with China.
The Daulat Beg Oldi airfield was set up in 1962 in the run-up to the brief but
brutal Sino-Indian war. The Indian Air Force (IAF)operated American-supplied
Fairchild Packets from this airfield between 1962 and 1965. Then in 1966 an
earthquake in the region loosened the surface soil, making it unsuitable for
aircraft to land on the airfield. It was subsequently shut down.
On May 31, for the first time in almost 43 years, an IAF AN-32 transport
aircraft landed at the Daulat Beg Oldi airfield. Regular operations will begin
in due course.
At a height of 4,960 meters (16,200 feet) the airfield is the world's highest.
"The airfield can be used for touching down and dropping or picking up troops
and supplies, not forward operations," said air commodore and former deputy
director of the Delhi-based Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies, Prashant
Dikshit. The IAF plans to reopen Chushul (located south of Pangong Lake and
near a vital supply road to Leh) and Fukche airfields in eastern Ladakh, also
along the Chinese border.
The Daulat Beg Oldi airfield is located a mere eight kilometers from Aksai Chin
and the Sino-Indian Line of Actual Control in this sector. It overlooks China's
Xinjiang province and more importantly, the strategic Karakoram Highway that
links China with Pakistan. It is near the Karakoram Pass and lies east of the
The airfield is "very critical to deal with incursions from China and
Pakistan", Phunchok Stobdan, senior fellow at the Institute for Defense Studies
and Analyses (IDSA) in New Delhi, told Asia Times Online. "Besides, in the
event of war, its proximity to the Karakoram Highway will give India a
The reopening of Daulat Beg Oldi airfield has ruffled feathers in Beijing.
China is reported to have expressed its "unhappiness" over the Indian move.
"This is not surprising given the airfield's proximity to Aksai Chin," said an
Indian intelligence official.
Roughly covering an area of 42,685 square kilometers, Aksai Chin is an icy,
high-altitude desert in the extreme northeast of Jammu and Kashmir. In the late
1950s, India discovered that China had quietly constructed a road through this
remote plateau. Then in the 1962 war, China occupied some 38,000 square
kilometers of territory in Aksai Chin. This remains under Chinese occupation to
Aksai Chin's importance to China, especially in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, lay
in the access it provided to Tibet. Of the three routes from China into Tibet,
the westerly route from Kashgar into the Tibetan plateau via Aksai Chin was the
As John Garver points out in his book Protracted Contest: Sino-Indian Rivalry in
the Twentieth Century, the western route via Aksai Chin "has a much
more continuous rise in elevation than either the northern [via Qinghai] or the
eastern route [via Sichuan]. On the western route, once you have climbed up to
4,600 meters (14,000 feet) or so, you more or less stay there and in any case
do not have to descend back down to 2,400 meters [8,000 ft] elevation to start
over, as with the Sichuan route".
Besides, although winters in the west are bitterly cold they have little snow.
Of the three routes it is the route via Aksai Chin that is open year-round,
throughout both the winter and the monsoon season. For China, which needed to
send troops, officials and supplies to consolidate control over Tibet, Aksai
Chin was a vital lifeline.
"Control of Aksai Chin was thus essential to Chinese control of western Tibet
and very important to its control over all of Tibet," wrote Garver.
Indian troops stationed near the Line of Actual Control have hitherto depended
largely on air-dropped supplies. That will now change with aircraft landing
According to the IAF, the Daulat Beg Oldi airfield has been reopened to
facilitate rotation of troops stationed in the area and to provide then with
regular supplies. "The temperature plummets in winter and all supply routes are
cut. The only way out is through the air and helicopters can only service a
little," said Air Marshal P K Barbora, Western Air Command's
"By reactivating the airfield, India would like to be seen as exercising a more
assertive presence in this area. Most of all it will be a great morale booster
for our troops positioned there. Landing at Daulat Beg Oldi airfield will
enable India to induct troops swiftly, improve communication network and
increase the air effort in the region substantially," Barbora added.
"The reopening of the field is a signal to China that India will take steps to
protect its national interest," Dikshit told Asia Times Online.
IDSA's Stobdan said that India is trying to counter the "dozens of provocations
from China". Earlier, there was a "general apathy in India's response to
Chinese moves". Financial constraints and fear of China resulted in a more
"That has been changing over the past two to three years," said Stobdan,
pointing to Delhi's decisions to improve connectivity and road infrastructure
along the Sino-Indian frontier. "Its level of confidence vis-a-vis China has
gone up and it is showing that it will take steps to consolidate its position
in its peripheries."
The decision to reopen Daulat Beg Oldi airfield is part of this larger effort
to improve preparedness vis-a-vis China. "India is preparing for contingency,"
The reopening has come amid increasing Chinese incursions into Indian
territory, especially over the past year. Concern is mounting in India over
China's massive buildup of military infrastructure and its robust road-building
activity along all sectors of the Sino-Indian border.
A month ago, bilateral tensions spiked when China laid claim to a 2.1 square
kilometer tract of land called the "Finger Area" in the northern most tip of
Sikkim, which overlooks the strategic Sora Funnel. Chinese troops threatened to
demolish stone structures in the Finger Area and their threats were endorsed by
officials, who reiterated the warning to Indian diplomats.
Sikkim's boundary with Tibet, which falls within the middle sector of the Line
of Actual Control, was considered to be the least complicated of the three
sectors. This is the only part of the Sino-Indian frontier that China had
accepted as settled; this is the only sector where the two sides have exchanged
maps. But this did not prevent Beijing from dragging it back into the border
Indian analysts are of the opinion that the Chinese claims over the Finger Area
together with earlier incidents of Chinese troops destroying Indian bunkers
near the Sino-Sikkim-Bhutan tri-junction and its objections to India beefing up
its troops in the Siliguri Corridor indicate China's hardening stance on the
There is growing impatience in India with what is seen as the government's weak
response to persistent Chinese bullying and arm-twisting on the border issue
and its unsubtle pressure on India to clamp down on Tibetan protests.
While the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party has accused the United Progressive
Alliance (UPA)government of going soft on China because of its dependence on
support from the left parties. Analysts have castigated the government for its
"lamb-like approach" and for sweeping crucial issues under the carpet, while
newspaper editorials have pointed to the UPA government losing momentum on the
border negotiations and "in danger of yielding ground on the Sino-Indian
"No doubt, the two countries have to work closely and avoid potential points of
conflict, but it is meaningless and short-sighted to ignore the differences,"
observed the Times of India.
Stobdan points out that in the runup to the Summer Olympic Games in Beijing in
August, China is vulnerable: "This provides India with a window of opportunity
to assert itself. But this window will close soon."
China can be expected "to up the ante after the Olympic games in August 2008",
warned Shantonu Choudhry, a former vice chief of army staff, in an article in
the Indian Express. "The probability of an all-out border war is low, [but] a
series of border skirmishes is a distinct possibility," he writes, adding that
the "attempt will be more flagrant if India's political center is perceived as
weak and pusillanimous".
India will have to learn to stand firm against China, without being seen as
confrontational. Is the re-opening of Daulat Beg Oldi a step in that direction?
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in