Proving a fillip to China’s preparedness for potential high-altitude warfare, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has completed construction of the fifth-generation barracks of the Simhana frontier defence company under the Xinjiang MilitaryArea Command (MAC). According to the Housing Office of the PLA’s Xinjiang MAC, the fifth-generation multifunctional barracks will be available in all frontier defence companies with an elevation of 3,000 meters and above, falling under the Xinjiang MAC.
Given the fact that most frontier defence companies and sentry posts are stationed on snow-capped mountainous terrain including plateaus at altitudes of over 3,000 meters, the fifth-generation barracks come in as a critical achievement at those heights. The PLA has been concentrating on preparing itself for any given conflict situation especially in the high-altitude areas. In this reference, incomplete domestic installations and lack of heat preservation in the older barracks posed difficulties vis-à-vis credible frontier defence.
The construction of the fifth-generation complex is reported to have cost China over 14 million Yuan. The decision to invest in constructing and renovating logistics facilities of high-altitude companies including at Shenxianwan, began way back in 2007 as per directives of the China’s Central Military Commission (CMC) and the General Headquarters (Departments) of the PLA, the Lanzhou Military Area Command and the Xinjiang MAC. Moreover, the newly constructed and commissioned barracks of the Biedieli frontier defence company are equipped reportedly with “ten major systems” including direct-drinking water purification system, solar-powered and boiler bathing system, solar-powered and diesel engine generating system, boiler heating and a solar heating system. Besides, it has been reported by the PLA that all grassroots companies have been equipped with satellite televisions and availability of internet in nearly 90 percent of the organic battalions and companies.
The above being a latest manifestation of PLA’s battlefield support capability, promulgated earlier through a series of policies ever since China announced its 11th Five-Year Plan (2006-2010). That field operations’ living support enhances and improves combat effectiveness is a given, it is very crucial to note that the PLA has already implemented the “oxygen-inhaling project” in PLA’s plateau troop units.
The far-western Xinjiang region, often dubbed as China’s “bridgehead” to the West, shares a 5,743 km boundary with eight countries including Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Mongolia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
China has acknowledged that lack of land ports linking China to Afghanistan is hampering cross-border economic ties. This consequently makes for a case for greater connectivity in terms of establishing direct trade links over land with Afghanistan and avoids routing trade through third parties, namely, Pakistan. According to Vice-Chairman of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, Shi Dagang, “By having two-way trade through a third country, it is difficult for the development of two-way trade… With time, and in accordance with need of construction and development of Afghanistan, I believe that border trade and small border trade between Xinjiang and Afghanistan will be promoted and developed.”
This also brings to focus China’s growing concern over security and cracking down on separatism and extremism in the Muslim-majority Xinjiang region, especially in the backdrop of the looming withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan by 2014. Although Beijing seeks greater economic ties with Kabul, the former is circumspect as far as expanding engagement in the non-economic areas, including training of the Afghan security forces is concerned. China's policy in Afghanistan could be described as one wherein it has sought to, and to a large extent, managed to, secure substantial gains primarily at the expense of the security cover provided by the ISAF/NATO allies—a facet that could soon be a case of the past. PLA’s attempts at keeping a tight fist vis-à-vis security in restive Xinjiang could be a mirror of the coming security situation in the region and its surrounding territory.
Dr. Monika Chansoria is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi
Views expressed are personal