China creates five new ‘areas of concern’ in Ladakh
13th round of talks held; India hopes for further disengagement of troops
The 13th round of talks began on Sunday on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Eastern Ladakh between senior military commanders from India and China. The Indian side is hoping for further disengagement of troops in the 17-month-long border confrontation.
The last breakthrough took place on August 6, a week after the 12th round of talks, when New Delhi announced a mutual troop pull-back from the Gogra area. However, in the area of greatest Indian concern – the Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) sector, India’s northern tip that nestles in the shadow of the Karakoram Pass – the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) continues to consolidate its domination.
After encroaching 15 kilometres (km) last year into the Indian side of the LAC, the PLA had blocked Indian Army patrols from going up to their traditional patrolling points (PPS), which were PP-10 to PP13. Now, it is learnt that Indian patrols are effectively being denied access to PP-4, PP-5, PP6, PP-7, PP-8, and PP-9 as well.
The developments of the past year and a half have caused Indian commanders to increase the number of designated trouble spots along the Ladakh LAC, where confrontation with the PLA is likely.
In the 1990s, Indian commanders had identified 12 places on the Ladakh LAC, where the two sides have differing perceptions of its alignment. These potential trouble spots are: Samar Lungpa, Depsang Bulge, Point 6556, Changlung Nala, Kongka La, Pangong Tso (North Bank), Spanggur Tso, Mount Sajun, Dumchele, Chumur, Demchok, and Trig Heights.
Over the last year, underscoring China’s growing expansionism, five additional friction points have been identified. These are KM-120 in the Galwan Valley, PP15 and PP17A in the Shyok Sula area, and Rechin La and Rezang La on the South Bank of the Pangong Tso. Contacted for comments on these developments, the Army has not responded.
Meanwhile, the PLA is consolidating its defensive emplacements, by measures such as building large, new structures at Tienwin Dien, ahead of DBO. It is unclear whether these are for troop accommodation, weapons shelters, or logistics hubs.
Furthermore, after building up thousands of troops last year in the DBO sector, the PLA has boosted combat capability further by moving more new weaponry into its ingress points across the LAC to replace the old weaponry.
One such new weapon is the state-of-the-art Russian S400 air defence missile system, which is deployed in at least one location in the Demchok sector, in southern Ladakh. These missiles are effective against Indian Air Force (IAF) fighters at ranges up to 400 km away - effectively the entire Union Territories of Ladakh and Jammu & Kashmir.
Along with weaponry, the Chinese are also upgrading road infrastructure. Having completed a bridge at Lungpa in the Chepzi area, the PLA is learnt to be building a metalled road in the buffer zone at PP14, in the Galwan Valley. The PLA has also inducted new communications equipment in this area.
At the Pangong Tso, too, the Chinese have beefed up their presence. There are now 21 Chinese boats for carrying out regular patrolling on the lake. Up to 250 vehicles ply daily, bringing the Chinese troops defence stores and logistics supplies.
If conflict were to break out, the PLA would be able to call up air support. IAF Air Chief Marshal Vivek Ram Chaudhari said on Tuesday that the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) continues building up in three airbases in Tibet. While he did not divulge their names, it is learnt that they are likely to be Lhasa, Xigatse, and Ngari, which together cover the entire Indian border from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh.
That said, analysts note that the PLAAF’S operational capability would be adversely affected by having to get airborne from 11,000-12,000-feet high airbases in Tibet, where oxygen levels in the air are significantly lower and, consequently, PLAAF aircraft would have to operate with significantly lighter weapons and fuel payloads. The IAF Chief agreed that the PLAAF’S capability to launch multiple, highaltitude missions would be consequently weakened.
Central and eastern sectors
Apart from the PLA’S frenetic troop build-up at multiple points along the LAC in Ladakh and its concerted improvement of living, fighting, and transportation infrastructure, the PLA has also widened its incursions into areas that were not hotly disputed or controversial. These hitherto 'settled' areas include Barahoti and Asafila, where PLA patrols have entered, confronted Indian troops' and destroyed Indian military infrastructure.
Barahoti, a small, 80-square (sq.) km pasture on the border in Uttarakhand, was in 1954 the first piece of Indian territory that China claimed. On August 30, the PLA staked a claim again when over 100 PLA soldiers intruded on 50 horses and destroyed the Hotigad bridge in Tun Jun La, which is 5.5 km inside Indian territory.
There have been five-six such transgressions in this sector, with the PLA violating Indian territory for several hours. Increased patrol violations by the PLA have also been witnessed at Asafila, a heavily forested 100 sq. km area, near the town of Taksing in the Subansiri division of Arunachal Pradesh. Here PLA patrols violated the LAC in December, transgressing into Indian territory on what is termed the 'Sierra Five Axis'.
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh has talked tough, but not acted when the PLA threw down the gauntlet. On February 11, India agreed to a mutual troop withdrawal from Pangong North and South, even though Indian Army positions here dominated the PLA’S defences, especially in the South. Singh had implied that the other PLA encroachments — at Hot Springs, Gogra, and Depsang, where the PLA held the advantage — would be taken up within 48 hours of the completion of disengagement at Pangong. But the PLA refuses to even discuss its intrusions into Depsang.
Similarly, on June 30, 2020, a ‘mutual troop withdrawal’ from Galwan was negotiated. Like the pull-back from Gogra two months ago, it turned out to be an unequal pull-back that has left the PLA controlling more territory than it had when it first intruded across the LAC in April 2020. And reports of the PLA re-entering Galwan have already started coming in.