According to Indian media reports, Indian and Chinese troops clashed in early May 2020 at two different sections of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), near Pangong Tso in Ladakh and the Naku La mountain pass in Sikkim resulting in injuries on both sides. Even as these incidents were underway, a serious Chinese intrusion in the Galwan Valley area was already in progress and it is this incident that has become a new flash point between India and China. Since the Galwan Valley is a doorway to Aksai Chin, it is therefore worthwhile to examine the nature of the current standoff between Indian and Chinese forces in that area, as well as at other points in Eastern Ladakh.
Focusing primary on the Aksai Chin area, the most intense standoff is arguably at the Galwan River Valley in Ladakh. The all-important 255 km Darbukh-Shyok-DBO (DSDBO) road, which is India’s mainstay on the Leh-Karakoram axis, passes near the area with the branch road moving across a bridge and leading up to the Galwan point, a dominant hill feature that overlooks and dominates the area around the DSDBO road. While Indian troops have been patrolling up to the point, the effort now is to improve road access and regularise presence.
Image: Author’s view of the likely standoff area in the Galwan Valley Sector
The Galwan valley was one of the flashpoints in the Sino-India War of 1962. China has changed its claims over the valley thrice with a report in the Global Times now claiming that the entire Galwan valley belongs to China.
The Galwan River flows from the Aksai Chin region in southern Xinjiang to Ladakh. It originates in the area of Samzungling on the eastern side of the Karakoram range and flows west to join the Shyok River. The Galwan river is to the west of China’s 1956 claim line in Aksai Chin. This was laid out in a map published by China according to which the boundary that started east of the Karakoram Pass and ran southeast, cutting across the Galwan valley. This alignment endorsed by the Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in 1959 but during the visit of the Chinese delegation to India in 1960 and additional claim was put forth but even in this claim, the claimed alignment ran close to the eastern bank of the Shyok River, cutting the Galwan River close to its confluence with the Shyok. This alignment was markedly west of the earlier claim.
Indian established the Galwan post on 4 July, 1962 that led to a standoff between Indian and Chinese troops for three months. War broke out in October 1962, with the Indian post being first encircled and then attacked. Of the 68 personnel at the post, 36 were killed, rest wounded and taken as prisoners of war (POWs). The six Indian positions on both sides of Galwan river were then overrun by the Chinese. After the war, China advanced its claim line, laying claim to an additional 2,000 sq km area of Ladakh.
The present stand-off is at an area west of this claim line also. Before we turn to the details of the Chinese incursion let us take a quick look at the overall Chinese ground force posture against India.
Chinese Force Levels Opposite India
Following the re-organisation of the People’s Liberation Army Ground Force (PLAGF), the Western Theatre Command (WTC) was formed, based on the former Chengdu and Lanzhou Military Regions and became the sole Theatre Command opposite India. As part of the same process, the PLAGF cut down the number of Group Armies from 18 to 13, and made smaller, more mechanised and informationised formations as compared to the previous divisional organisation. The PLAGF now has more combined arms brigades as the basic formation though some motorized and mechanised divisions still exist.
So, now opposite India, there exists only one theatre command- WTC with two Group Armies (GAs). The WTC Army headquarters is in Lanzhou with the joint operations command centre is located in Chengdu. Considering the expanse and importance of the WTC, two Military Divisions are retained within its geographical ambit. Of these, the Tibet Military Division (TMD) with an approximate strength of about 40,000 is the (numerically) smaller of the two and has 52nd, 53rd and 54th Mountain Infantry Brigades, an Artillery Brigade, five Independent Infantry Battalions and seven Border Defence Regiments while Xinjiang Military Division (XMD) has an approximate strength of 70,000 and has on its order of battle 4th Mechanised Infantry Division, 6th, 8th and 11th Motorized Infantry Division and the 2nd Artillery Brigade. XMD also has a Special Operations Forces Brigade, two Independent Regiments and two Border Defence Regiments.
The overall force level in WTC is estimated to be in the region of 2,00,000 to 2,30,000.
In late April 2020, China Central television (CCTV) showed columns of PLA’s Joint Logistic Support Force elements with People’s Armed Police moving from Lhasa to Ngari but this was apparently taken as part of a move for routine summer training. Almost at the same time, the regular Chinese forces on the LAC were observed to have been beefed up with additional troops, heavy trucks and equipment. It is doubtful if this was also taken for anything else except as routine training.
The build-up that followed on May 5, 2020 at Galwan, as about a few thousand Chinese troops crossed the LAC, was too large and serious to be dismissed as ‘routine transgression’ as the Chinese have moved about 1 to 3 kilometres inside Indian territory, much beyond the China’s Claim Line (CCL). This was followed by an incursion in the Pangong Lake sector on May 12, 2020 by a similar force level.
As per the reports now available, China has also moved artillery and armour to the area, on their side of the LAC opposite the Galwan valley. It is also suggested that the Chinese are preparing permanent defences in the area.
The first of these incidents was at Galwan on 5 May, 2020. The second incident occurred on 9 May in Naku La, in northern Sikkim, when about 200 Chinese soldiers temporarily occupied Indian territory, but withdrew and pitched up temporary shelters on their side.
This was followed by the third intrusion that took place near the Pangong Lake on May 12, 2020 when Chinese soldiers occupied territory between Finger 8 and Finger 4. The ‘Finger heights’ were taken over by the Chinese by 18 May. The next confrontation was reportedly in Harsil in Uttarakhand in the Middle Sector of the LAC.
Image: Author’s View of the likely ground situation along the Northern Bank of Pangong Tso
In the absence of any authoritative information, it is difficult to assess the exact PLAGF force level at Galwan though it is in the thousands and not something that can be dismissed as part of routine training. As per one defence analyst, the Chinese force level is of a Brigade each, in three locations i.e. Galwan, Pangong Tso and Harsil with smaller presence in Demchok and Naku La. A former Army commander, however, puts the PLA deployment at a maximum of one brigade each in the Galwan Valley and along the north bank of Pangong Tso with ‘precautionary deployment’ at likely launch pads for offensive operations and other vulnerable areas along the LAC. The official reaction remains vague and the best estimate is given as ‘less than what was in the case of Doklam’.
The standoff continues with both sides building up their force levels with the Chinese making military-style bunkers and a warehouse, besides digging trenches. Chinese armour is reportedly located less than 10 km away.
The attempts to resolve the stand-off by mutually agreed to procedures of having talks between local commanders did not yield any results initially as China did not agree to India’s proposals for the same. A more recent reports indicates that official-level talks began sometime in May but details remain fuzzy as of now. Muddying the waters was the statement of United States President that he had spoken to Prime Minister Modi, but this was denied by official sources.
The present stand-off raises some questions that need to be addressed. Whatever be the reason(s), this is a clear attempt to change the status quo, to China’s advantage. There have been past instances of such “occupy, build-up, intimidate, occupy some more, build-up” policy as Bharat Karnad puts it and whatever be the outcome of the present stand-off, this will certainly not be the last. Where can it happen again and what can be done to prevent it should be one of the main concerns.
Is there a need for India to pay back China in the similar manner and “occupy, build-up” in areas where India has the tactical and geographical advantages is an option that is on the table. Will it be or will it not be acted on is another debate.
The basic issue of the movement and build-up of such a large force going undetected is a matter of concern and points to an intelligence failure. There were indications that Chinese troops were moving from Lhasa to Ngari and these were accompanied by the elements of Joint Logistic Support Force. It is not known if this was noticed, and acted upon in time. But even so, a build up of two brigades in the area should have been picked by the intelligence and surveillance agencies and information passed on to the Army else it points to a serious lapse.
The most commonly attributed reason for the Chinese actions is that they have reacted to the construction of infrastructure by India. If this is true, it points to another failure. The presently skewed ‘balance of power’ in the limited geographical region of Aksai Chin and Ladakh is based on the existing infrastructure on both sides. India has been developing border infrastructure to correct this imbalance and is well within its rights to do so and build up infrastructure as per its requirements. But the larger point is whether such development work will invite any reaction.
It is obvious that the infrastructure development would upset China’s calculations and that China would react to these developments. Now how, where and when China reacts should have been factored in by India. It should have been known that China will react to the development of the Darbukh-Shyok-DBO (DSDBO) road – and India should have prepared for the same. This is what Lt Gen H.S. Panag, former Army commander, also believes in when he says ‘We made a fundamental military mistake of not securing the area in strength before we attempted to improve our border infrastructure in sensitive areas. The PLA pre-empted us.’
Either India did not apprehend a Chinese reaction or underplayed it. In both cases, it points to a failure on our part.
There are established norms and drills for dealing with any transgression by patrols from either side. These failed as use of violence leading to serious injuries to over 100 men is unprecedented. Will this be the new normal? And is there a need for India to scale up its actions (and reactions) in such instances? Or do we go back to trying to reinforce the previously agreed to drills and ensure compliance. These considerations merit further thought at the very least.
The Way Ahead
The option of physically evicting the Chinese and direct military action have been laid out by more than analyst but as Ashley Tellis says ‘physical eviction of the Chinese troops is not a very attractive prospect’ and it remains to be seen whether it will be indeed exercised.
The option most likely to be considered and acted upon will be talks between the two sides at an appropriate level. In a related view of things, a member of India’s ruling party’s National Executive Committee has suggested that one way of solving the border dispute is to ‘draw a new map in the diplomatic drawing rooms,’ an option that will require a ‘strong political will.’ If this is an indication of possible options being thought of, it is ominous as it falls in the pattern of believing that complex problems of yore have simple answers but were never implemented because of weak political will and a strong man acting decisively can resolve all issues. It is almost if Karnad had a premonition of such a suggestion, as he mentions that unless India takes proactive steps such as ‘filling vacant spaces beyond Indian claim-lines with armed encampments, allowing the Indian Army to blow-up offending Chinese infrastructure and, by way of retribution, ambushing passing PLA troops’, it ‘should be prepared for a map thoroughly changed by China.’ Though the Indian Army is capable of such actions, it is unclear if the go-ahead will be given for the same.
Whatever be the option(s) being considered, the present stand-off and the posturing by the forces will continue for some time. There may be a show of pulling back forces by China but if its past conduct is any indication, the build-up and construction infrastructure by the PLA in these areas is here to stay and this altered reality will now need to be factored in by India. China and its PLA has invested heavily in building up its capabilities in the new generation warfare. It will be worthwhile to keep these capabilities in mind and prepare ourselves to preempt any misadventure in ‘other than conventional’ warfare domains .
Colonel Mandeep Singh(Retd) joined the Indian Army in December 1982 and was commissioned into Air Defence Artillery. He commanded an Air Defence Group during Operation Parakaram and also commanded his Regiment along the Line of Actual Control with China.
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