China has been ramping up its air force facilities by constructing new or expanding its existing airbases in areas bordering India. At least 16 locations, including those close to Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh and even opposite Uttarakhand, not too far away from the India-Nepal-Tibet tri-junction have been identified in intelligence reports. Most of these are in the Xinjiang province that shares borders with India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Russia, among others.

The region also shares borders with Ladakh that has been the focus of military tussle between India and China for the last one year.

Two new airports are also in the pipeline opposite Arunachal Pradesh.

Among the three airports put in the first-tier category or forward bases closer to Indian borders are Ali Gunsa, Burang and Tashkorgan airports. These are meant for dual use i.e. civil and military.

Tashkorgam Airport: Close To Karakoram Range

The most important and latest airport in the first-tier category is the Tashkorgam Pamir. It is close to the Karakoram Pass. Situated north of Gilgit in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir at an altitude of more than 10,000 feet, the airport on the Pamir Plateau is in proximity to the critical Siachen Glacier. It is the first high plateau airport in the region.

The Karakoram Range runs north of the crucial Daulat Beg Oldie airbase.

The construction of China's westernmost airport started last year amid the tensions in Ladakh. With its proximity to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the airport is considered to be a critical strategic base for China. Located in the Xingiang Uygur Autonomous region, it borders Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The airport is expected to start operations by June 2022.

Focus On Airports North of Karakoram Range

The Karakoram Pass is north of Ladakh and is strategic for India and China as it falls on the boundary between the Indian territory of Ladakh and China's Xingiang autonomous region in Tibet.

The all-critical Siachen Glacier under Indian control falls in the Eastern Karakoram Range. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) cuts through the Karakoram Range. Around the Karakoram Pass, China has enhanced facilities in at least five airports--Hotan, Shache, Kashi, Tashkorgan (new airport coming up) and Yutian Wangfung.

The Hotan airbase, close to Ladakh and around 250 km from the Karakoram Pass has been extremely active since the tensions in Ladakh started. Heavy deployment of fighter aircraft and new facilities have been made here. Even as a diplomatic and military dialogue continues, China is enhancing infrastructure at airbases that can be used for action in Ladakh.

Ali Gunsa Airport: Proximity To Ladakh, Himachal And Uttarakhand

The Ali Gunsa airport at 14,000 feet enjoys a strategic location close to the Shiqanhe town in Ngari Prefecture and is also called the Nagari Kunsha airport. It's about 200 km from the Pangong Lake in Ladakh and also caters to Lake Mansarovar opposite Mt Kailash.

The airport's proximity to Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand makes it a strategic location.

This is also among the first-tier or forward airports category.

The airport started operations in 2010 but saw rapid expansions during the Doklam standoff between India and China in 2017 and continues to undergo upgrades amid military tensions in Ladakh over the last one year.

Burang Airport: Near India-Tibet-Nepal Tri-Junction

In addition to the above, another airport close to Mt Kailash has been approved and is the third among the first-tier category airports.

It is located near the strategic India-Tibet-Nepal tri-junction bordering the Indian state of Uttarakhand.

Last year, a new strategic 80 km road constructed by India to the Lipulekh pass at 17,000 feet on the India-Tibet-Nepal tri-junction triggered a diplomatic row between New Delhi and Kathmandu, with Nepal claiming the territory. The tri-junction and the road makes travel of Kailash Mansarovar pilgrims smoother and also aid troops serving at the Line of Actual Control on the India-China frontier.

The town of Burang or Purang (as it is pronounced in Tibetan) is at a height of more than 13,000 feet.

Upgrades In Other Sectors

The airport in Tazhong, north of Bhutan is being upgraded. This is significant in the wake of tensions in Doklam between India and China on the India-Tibet-Bhutan tri-junction in 2017 when there was a 73-day standoff.

In the eastern sector, two new airports are coming up in Minxian and Dingxi in the Gansu province opposite Arunachal Pradesh.