China considers India’s infrastructure development in eastern Ladakh a great threat. But what has missed the media attention so far is how Beijing itself has ramped up major strategic projects along the north-eastern borders with Arunachal Pradesh.
Scrutiny of open-source satellite images from Google Earth and other platforms show that China has been surreptitiously strengthening its infrastructure in and around Nyingchi, a military town in the Tibet region where it has stationed two large combined arms brigades.
Nyingchi is located opposite India’s Tuting sector in the Upper Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh.
China, the imagery shows, has not only built airports, heliports, railway, and a new high-speed road connecting Nyingchi with Lhasa and the rest of the country, it has also improved radar coverage and other administrative infrastructure for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in this region.
The satellite imagery parsed over the last two decades indicates that the construction of Nyingchi airport started in 2004 and was completed in July 2006.
The small airport with a three-km airstrip is located along the Brahmaputra River and is barely 15 km from the Indian border.
Nyingchi Airport (Photo Credits: India Today)
As part of the airport development project, the apron has been expanded and a larger reception and lounge building has been added to the previous structures, the analysis reveals.
Levelling and grading for a possible second airstrip has also begun, it’s been observed recently.
The feverish activity suggests that China is in a rush to complete the second airstrip at the earliest.
A large number of buildings for accommodating troops and equipment have also been created to the south of the airport, images show.
Nyingchi Airport Lounge (Photo Credits: India Today)
These infrastructure facilities saw additions during the 2017 Doklam standoff when China built parks for armoured vehicles and to accommodate more troops.
A 150m x 300m square area has been cleared and is being levelled in the mountains in the eastern corner of the airstrip.
It is assessed that this could be used for more accommodation and/or for air defence positions.
A British-era cross-shaped helipad in the town has now been upgraded.
This also signifies that the area was controlled and administered by British India and is now occupied by China.
Nyingchi Heliport (Photo Credits: India Today)
At present, the heliport features eight square-shaped helicopter parking spots with a helistrip at the centre and two more parking spaces.
The latest satellite images show three Mi-17V helicopters of the LH brigade under the Tibet Military District.
A railway line, which was supposed to connect Nyingchi to Lhasa via Gonggar and Lhoka by the end of 2020, was almost complete a year before the project deadline.
The route is part of the Sichuan-Tibet railway. It is the first electric line in Tibet. Most of the tunnels en route are complete as of date.
Nyingchi Railway Station (Photo Credits: India Today)
The last tunnel named Zagar tunnel is almost nine-km-long and was the toughest to build.
The Nyingchi station would have loading and unloading facilities and possibly a turntable for train engines.
The city of Lhasa was connected with Nyingchi town towards the end of 2018 with a high-grade expressway.
It is a four-lane two-way road along the Nyang River. The length is 410 km with an average width of 20 m.
Lhasa-Nyingchi Expressway (Photo Credits: India Today)
Traffic can run at an average speed of 80kmph on the expressway, claims the Chinese government. It reduces the travel time between the two locations from nine to five hours.
The Xinhua news agency said the expressway is toll-free for locals.
New radar station, aerostat trials
In 2001, China established the earliest radar station in this area approximately 30 km from the town of Nyingchi.
This one was a routine People’s Liberation Army Air Force facility, which has two radomes with radars covering low- and high-altitude aerospace in its area of coverage.
Nyingchi Old Radar Station (Photo Credits: India Today)
A new radar station was established recently in 2014 by the PLAAF, about 25 km from the town. As of date, it has a single radome of 16-m diameter and a rectangular place cleared for possibly vehicle-based radar.
This suggests that this location could be testing new radars for mountainous regions.
Nyingchi New Radar Station (Photo Credits: India Today)
Aerostat trials up to the height of 1,500 m were carried out about 40 km north of the Nyingchi town.
However, they are not apparently deployed in this area yet. The trials probably were not successful.
Nyingchi Aerostat Trial (Photo Credits: India Today)
The ramping up of infrastructure in this region, especially the possible second airstrip at Nyingchi airport, suggests China’s willingness to deploy larger forces in the area.
The infrastructure can also enable swift switching of forces in an emergency.
Colonel (Retired) Vinayak Bhat is a consultant for India Today. A satellite imagery analyst, he served in the Indian Army for over 33 years