In what should be deciphered as a vital indicative pointer for China’s neighbours, State Councillor and Defence Minister Chang Wanquan has called for strengthening “frontier defence construction” during a border defence inspection visit to northwest China’s restive Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Although the exact date of the assessment visit was not disclosed, the statement carried weight coming from none other than the State Councillor (State Council)—the chief executive organ. Chang touched as far as the border troop units and posts are located, simultaneously visiting frontier checkpoints, duty points, and border ports. Besides, he held crucial meetings with the armed personnel and local government machinery that gave inputs on border management, control, and building a consolidated border defence.
Chang admitted that the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party with Xi Jinping as its “core” recognised the complexity and severity of the security situation in the region. The statement only reinforces the centrality of maintaining control and stability in Xinjiang from China’s overall strategic perspective.
Building an “iron wall to enhance frontier border defence” appears to be the policy pronouncement by Xi’s administration, to be carried out by means including that of increased police patrols in Xinjiang. Towards the end of December last year itself, Korla—a city in central Xinjiang, announced plans to recruit 1,500 police personnel from Hebei, Shaanxi, and Sichuan provinces. The administration in Xinjiang is infamous for draconian security measures and hard-line policies such as asking residents to hand over their passports to local police, opening up an extensive network of “convenience police stations” equipped with surveillance cameras and guards on round-the-clock patrols.
In the periphery, Xinjiang’s border defence corps holds regular combat training drills including on the Pamir Plateau that once was considered a strategic trade route between Kashgar and Kokand on the ancient Northern Silk Road. Presence of Chinese military vehicles Dongfeng EQ 2050—a Chinese equivalent of the American Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle, Humvee, has often been reported from inside the region called Little Pamir, a barren plateau near the border.
Defence Minister Chang, who has earlier been the PLA’s Chief-of-Staff for Beijing and Lanzhou Military Regions, and Commander of the Shenyang Military Region, has a well-established penchant for making war-pitch statements in China’s land-locked or coastal border regions. On an earlier occasion, while visiting the strategically significant Zhejiang province, he called the “military, police, and public” to increasingly prepare for a “people’s war at sea”. An eastern coastal province of China, Zhejiang is bordered by Jiangsu and Shanghai to the north, Jiangxi to the west, Fujian to the south, and the East China Sea in its east.
Chang’s pitch for strengthening frontier border defence construction in Xinjiang resonates and reflects far away in China’s southwest—on the Doklam plateau region. Satellite imagery, of late, increasingly indicates that the Chinese PLA is well set up in northern Doklam with posts, trenches, armoured vehicles, heavy road building machinery, and permanent troop deployment. More importantly, more than half a dozen helipads, one full mechanised regiment (with the probability of another) and a tall observation tower have been constructed by the PLA Construction Corps. Chinese border roads today cover a major share of the North Doklam plateau, coupled with widening of the existing road network.
On 18 December 2017, a few days prior to Defence Minister Chang’s call for frontier border defence construction, the Chinese Defence Ministry announced that the Defense Engineering Research Institute under the Academy of Military Science of the PLA has developed a new type of fabricated fortification and distributed the same to the frontier defence troops. This fabricated fortification can be divided into 13 sets in four major categories, namely observation, and shooting, commanding centre, personnel and equipment sheltering, and are composed of electromagnetic shielding systems.
These fabricated fortification units are light in component, small in size, capable of mobile transportation and flexible construction, rendering them well suited for remote, high altitude, mountainous areas where they can be assembled or disassembled with prefabricated parts multiple times. The Defence Ministry acknowledged that with the new fortifications, the troops could swiftly build battlefield-engineering support structures. Resultantly, a PLA platoon now can effectively construct an advance commanding post for a division or a brigade within a span of few hours using these fabricated fortifications. Not surprisingly, this advancement has effectively boosted the PLA’s engineering support capability in wartime, and frontier management and control ability in peacetime, all along China’s borderlines. To summarise, the coming summer will be a testing time for China’s neighbours amid a blitzkrieg of frontier defence infrastructure and readiness that Beijing seeks to confront its adversaries with.
Dr Monika Chansoria is a Tokyo-based Senior Visiting Fellow at The Japan Institute of International Affairs (JIIA).