In an all too familiar state of affairs, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had upped the ante along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh prior to Xi Jinping’s October 2019 visit to India. It has been observed over the years that Chinese military activities along the LAC with India register a noticeable ‘bump’ in the run-up to visits by China’s top leadership. The September 2019 round of Chinese provocations took place in the so-called Western Sector of the LAC with the region around Chushul and Pangong Tso seeing increasingly aggressive patrolling by the PLA Ground Force (PLAGF). At the time, the Indian Army (IA) responded by conducting an all-arms offensively oriented exercise called Changthang Prahar in the region with a view to dampening Chinese aggressiveness and it seemed to have worked. Let us take a closer look at how things panned out back then.
PLAGF ups the ante
In September 2019, the PLAGF trangressed the LAC both on the Pangong Tso (Lake), as well as on land near Dumchulle that lies on the right bank of the Indus to the South of Pangong. In fact, these transgressions set off a couple of serious face-offs as was reported in the press at the time. According to sources, the face-off that took place on the Pangong Tso itself on September 11, 2019, resulted in major injuries for Indian Army personnel when their boat was rammed by a Chinese vessel. Among the injured was an officer. In all, some six PLAGF boats laden with troops faced-off against an equal number of Indian boats with personnel on board. This altercation, for lack of a better word, apparently lasted for about two hours and took place within a few hundred metres of India’s Thakung Post, where boats meant for patrolling the Pangong Tso are moored.
Now even as the incident on the Pangong Tso resulted in a problematic situation, another face-off took place near Dumchelle, which has been in Chinese hands since 1962. This face-off witnessed infantry from both sides looking to stare each other down. These heightened tensions apparently resulted in a scheduled Border Personnel Meeting (BPM) at Chushul being called off. Although, the face-offs themselves unwinded in a few days, aggressive patrolling by the Chinese side remained underway for longer. Incidentally, talks to set up a new border trading post at Dumchulle had been underway at the diplomatic level between India and China for some months prior to these incidents.
As such, the rise of incidents in the vicinity of the Pangong Tso was hardly surprising then as it is now in the summer of 2020. The narrow valleys abutting the northern and southern shores of the lake are historic trade routes that serve as transit corridors between Ladakh and the Ngari Part of Tibet. This means that they can also serve as axes for ingress into Indian territory from the Tibetan side. Conversely, the banks of the Pangong Tso are also doorways into Tibet, especially the East-West stretch or ‘gap’ lying between the Southern shore of Pangong and the northern shores of the much smaller Spanggur Tso. Indeed, this was the route taken by a part of General Zorawar Singh Kahluria’s invasion force into Tibet in the 19th Century, with the aim of capturing Rutog/Rudok, which lies on the South Eastern corner of Pangong Tso and has historically been a center for shawl wool obtained from sheep reared in the Changthang Plains of Tibet, which lie to its immediate East. This part of the force was of course commanded by Zorawar Singh himself. Today, Rudok is also a garrison for a heavy mechanized brigade of the PLAGF.
Now, there are a number of spurs which jut into the Pangong Tso from both its banks, although it is the ones on its Northern shores that are of interest to the Indian side, since the major spurs on the Southern bank lie across India’s claim line anyway. India has numbered the spurs on the Northern side that lead up to the LAC as Fingers 1 to 8. However, while the Indian side claims the border to be up to Finger 8, when counted from a Westernly direction, it patrols only up to Finger 4, since China disputes Fingers 5 to 8. The Chinese meanwhile, have been trangressing all the way up to Finger 3, which is around where the September 2019 incident took place. Clearly, the Chinese have no intention of letting India extend its eyes and ears close to their own positions in and around Pangong Tso, differing ‘perceptions’ of the exact location of the line notwithstanding.
Unsurprisingly, Chinese provocations in the area have coincided with their creation of a significant number of new PLAGF camps in the area and the paving of all motorable roads on their side of the LAC. On the other hand, the PLAGF has been assiduously seeking to limit the ambit of India’s own infrastructural activities in this sector. In fact, the Dumchulle face-off was precipitated by an Indian bid to construct a black top road on its side of the LAC.
India responds with Changthang Prahar
The IA was naturally cognizant of the Chinese strategy in this sector and seems to have been given the necessary support from New Delhi to match the Chinese buildup along this part of the border. Indeed, Changthang Prahar, which was conducted in September 2019 under the aegis of the IA’s XIV Corps (Fire and Fury) sent across the desired message at the time.
Changthang Prahar was an unprecedented exercise conducted in the Ladakh region in that it involved a sizeable number of IA main battle tanks (MBTs), including both T-90s and T-72s, mechanized infantry units (BMP-2s), 105 & 155 mm artillery units, paratroops for air assault, army aviation units in offensive roles & the extensive use of unmanned aerial vehicles for both Reconnaissance, surveillance, and target acquisition (RSTA) as well as Battle Damage Assessment (BDA). In fact, the name Changthang Prahar itself conveyed the offensive nature of the exercise. The Chinese took note and matters wound down by the time of Jinping’s October 2019 visit.
A Hot Summer of 2020?
Cut to 2020, India-China relations remain as problematic as ever, dialogue at the highest-levels notwithstanding. Though, India initially refrained from joining the growing anti-China chorus in the world community about the handling of the outbreak by Beijing, it has nevertheless lent its weight to a global call for an independent investigation into the origins of the virus. Then there is also the delicate matter of the re-instatement of Taiwan’s observer status at the world health assembly even as India is set to take over as the Chair of the World Health Organization’s Executive Board. Added to this is the fact that India is now going to closely vet any and all inward investments from China, is looking to attract supply chains exiting Chinese soil and is also generally going to pursue a strategy of import substitution with respect to parts & components for several sectors, all of which will certainly be noticed by China Inc.
As such, the LAC has an uncanny tendency of becoming hot whenever ‘larger’ issues hang in the balance. But it is the Western Sector of the LAC i.e. along Ladakh that is increasingly the focus of such ‘send a message across’ type behaviour by the Chinese. After an initial incident in North Sikkim, the PLAGF seems to have dedicated Summer 2020 to Ladakh. Till the time of writing, Chinese activities in the heights overlooking Daulat Beg Oldie Advanced Landing Ground have been reported, the PLAGF has also apparenty reinforced positions near the point where the Galwan River meets the Shyok River and then of course there was that major incident in early May 2020 that took place along the Pangong Tso.
Indeed, while tensions along the Depsang/Soda Plains may rise from time to time and the PLAGF may probe further west from the Galwan Valley, the biggest flashpoint in Ladakh continues to be the Pangong Tso for reasons that were outlined earlier in the piece. The Chinese aim in this area is to keep India’s surveillance as limited in scope as possible, with forceful pushbacks if necessary, as the 2019 boat ramming incident demonstrated. But, New Delhi must stay the course. More than anything else, India’s intelligence gathering capabilities in the area need to be progressively augmented, as that will act as a major force multiplier. Indeed, it is hard to imagine that Indian boats could have responded effectively in 2019, to stave off the Chinese ingress on the surface of the Pangong Tso, had it not been for timely intelligence.
Saurav Jha is the Founder of Delhi Defence Review. Follow Him on Twitter @SJha1618
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