December 19, 2023
China is on the verge of completing a new highway near its contested border with India, potentially allowing for the rapid mobilization of People's Liberation Army troops during a conflict as the military standoff between the two Asian giants continues.
In India's Ladakh region, on the west of the Line of Actual Control, China has long fretted about its Achilles' heel called the G219 highway, which runs along the country's entire western and southern border, linking the regions of Xinjiang and Tibet.
Historically, Chinese military strategists lost sleep over wartime access to the G219 during a conflict with India. Under Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who has vowed to defend every inch of the nation's claimed territory, Beijing has been addressing that vulnerability and is close to completing an alternate route known as the G216.
Plans for the roadway, part of a network that could one day deliver China's armed forces directly into future hot zones, were announced by Beijing in July 2022 with the aim of creating "strategic backbone passages out of Xinjiang and into Tibet."
"This line is closer to the China-India border," a Chinese blogger observed at the time, predicting a stern protest from the External Affairs Ministry in New Delhi.
A map based on China's national highway plan announced on July 12, 2022. China appears to have completed a new strategic highway called G216, visible in the center, close to its border with India.
Publicly available footage from the region, analyzed by Newsweek, showed new sections of the G216 now accessible to tourists traveling across Xinjiang.
China's state broadcaster CCTV last month celebrated the opening of a new tunnel from Urumqi to Yuli county, both in Xinjiang, which is now considered to be the world's longest. A trending hashtag on the Chinese social media app Weibo declared in late November that the country's infrastructure was "about to break through Tianshan," referring to the mountain range.
Hidden behind the celebrations, however, was Beijing's progress in linking the G216 to disputed areas on its border with India. Footage online showed the new highway passing close to Aksai Chin in Xinjiang, a region claimed by India as part of Ladakh.
People's Liberation Army troops carrying artillery rounds to be test-fired by a Chinese light tank are seen in China's northwestern Xinjiang region, across from India's Ladakh region, on July 3, 2023. China appears to have completed a new strategic highway close to its border with India.CHINA MILITARY NETWORK
In Xinjiang, the G216 starts in Altay prefecture in the north and crosses the Tianshan Mountains before ending in the town of Baluntai for a total distance of 532 miles. A new section of the national highway also connects Xinjiang's capital of Urumqi to Ruili in southwestern Yunnan province via Tibet.
Rakesh Sharma, a retired Indian Army general who is now a distinguished fellow at the Vivekananda International Foundation think tank in New Delhi, told Newsweek that difficult terrain prevented the G216 from being built in the past, but Beijing has since overcome that challenge.
"G216 and G219 now become the highways for the logistical sustenance of the forces in these areas as they connect across to the main highway which comes out of Xinjiang. These are two axials developed for logistical sustenance and movement of forces up and down," said Sharma, who previously served in Ladakh.
Yet another national highway, the G695, which is under construction, will come even closer to the locale where Chinese and Indian troops continue to be deployed.
"The highway G695 is a different kettle of fish altogether as it will go within 10-15 kilometers (6-9 miles) to the Line of Actual Control, where both sides have their forces deployed," Sharma said.
"The highway transits across the northern borders and will become an important road against India because that is a connection through which a large shifting of forces can take place," he said.
An Indian Army convoy, carrying reinforcements and supplies, travels towards Leh through Zoji La, a high mountain pass bordering China, on June 13, 2021, in Ladakh, India. China appears to have completed a new strategic highway close to its border with India.GC IMAGES/GETTY IMAGES ENTERTAINMENT/YAWAR NAZIR
India is expanding its own strategic infrastructure on its side of the border amid the lingering specter of armed conflict with China in the future.
Sharma, who said the G695 was coming up "in bits and pieces," believes the highway could give China an edge in the mobilization of forces through difficult terrain, posing a challenge for India.
An estimated 100,000 soldiers on either side of the 2,100-mile LAC remain in eastern Ladakh, and both militaries remain locked in a stalemate despite 20 rounds of bilateral talks aimed at deescalation.
China's building of bridges and other infrastructure along the LAC likely will result in a permanent PLA presence there, according to Sharma, tying down a significant portion of the Indian Army along the contested border.
Earlier this month, Beijing reasserted its claim to New Delhi-controlled Jammu and Kashmir—also claimed by Pakistan—after India's Supreme Court upheld a 2019 decision by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government to strip the region of its special administrative status in a move to further solidify de facto control.
"China has never recognized the so-called Union Territory of Ladakh set up unilaterally and illegally by India. India's domestic judicial verdict does not change the fact that the western section of the China-India border has always belonged to China," China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said.
"The Chinese have not been known in recent years to have paused any of their plans on account of Indian sensitivities," said Jabin Jacob, an associate professor at the Shiv Nadar Institution of Eminence in India's Greater Noida.
Jacob told Newsweek the Indian government was "trying to kick the can down the road" instead of directly and publicly addressing the threat posed by China's activities at the border.
"By trying to limit Indian public attention to the boundary dispute, the Indian government has actually provided the Chinese the opportunity to continue construction at the border, negotiations or no negotiations," he said.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry and the Indian External Affairs Ministry did not return separate written requests for comment before publication.
Update 21/12/23, 8:20 a.m. ET: This article was updated to include Ladakh's relative position on the Line of Actual Control.