Ahsan Hamid Durrani l

The standoff between Indian and Chinese armies along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Eastern Ladakh/ Aksai Chin region continues. Both countries have deployed thousands of troops in this disputed region (Indian sources estimate 5000 x Chinese troops and almost equal number of Indian troops), especially in Pangong Tso Lake and Galwan Valley. The multiple standoff points in Eastern Ladakh include:

  1. Pangong Tso Lake where the standoff began on 5 May 20, when skirmishes between Indian and Chinese troops were reported. As per unconfirmed reports, the PLA has secured the entire area between Finger 5 and Finger 8  along the north bank of Pangong Tso, a distance of nearly 8-10 km.[1]
  2. Galwan valley, where Chinese troops have moved near Shyok-Galwan River Junction to block ingress route towards LAC. As per Indian sources, PLA has physically secured 3-4 km of Indian territory along Galwan River.
  3. Minor skirmishes have been reported near Gogra Post ivo Hot spring (80 km SE of Galwan Valley), located between the valley and Pangong Lake, provide access to Aksai Chin through Chang Chinmin river.
  4. Face off near Demchok bordering southern areas of Aksai chin in proximity to Tibet-Xingiang NH 219 Highway
  5. Daulat Beg Oldie, a revamped advance landing ground (ALG).

Immediate Triggers for Chinese Move

Following events seems to have triggered Chinese pre-emptive actions in disputed Eastern Ladakh (over areas which Beijing lays claim to):

  1. Indian development of border roads and related infrastructure /links to improve its accessibility to the Aksai Chin region (and Siachin glacier) since 2007 has been seen with suspicion by China as a possible threat to LAC in future. The most important feature of defence road network built by India’s Border Roads Organization is Dharchuk via Shyok to Daulat Beg Oldie (DSDBO) 255 Km long road (completed last year) that ends at Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO). This road is at least 10 km inside the LAC at several points, and runs perpendicular to the Galwan river. To connect this road to the LAC, India is constructing feeder roads which included a bridge over a nullah near the confluence of the Shyok and Galwan rivers (5 KM from LAC). India recently commenced construction of a branch road to the LAC which triggered the ongoing face-off in the Galwan River valley. China therefore decided for a preemptive move to secure important defense locations whilst staying within its claimed territorial limits before India could place impregnable defences.[2]
  2. Indian unilateral move to annex Ladakh by revoking article 370; wherein Chinese lays claim on certain portion bordering Aksai-Chin; perhaps has acted as catalyst to precipitate current crises. Additionally Indian aggressive posturing and political rhetoric to absorb Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan & overt criticism of CPEC unsettled China have further compounded Chinese fear.[3]

Tactical and Strategic Aspects – Ladakh Standoff

According to Lt Gen H S Panag (Ex-Indian Army), just like in 1962, 1965, and 1999, India has once again been surprised both at the strategic and tactical levels. The manner in which India had to rush reinforcements from other sectors gives a clear indication that it was surprised. At the strategic level, it was the failure of the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) to detect the build-up of the PLA formations from the rear bases to replace the border defense units. According to him, India’s tactical surveillance with UAVs and patrols has been inadequate to detect this large-scale movement close to the LAC. The failure at strategic level and total surprise has forced New Delhi to adopt a reactionary approach by simply following every Chinese move rather than formulating its own preemptive response, hence, giving China the tactical and strategic edge, in Ladakh. Moreover, India cannot afford military actions in this area due to capability mismatch and geographical location which is advantageous to China. Absence of official statement from Beijing on the cause or objectives of current standoff has prevented New Delhi from devising a cohesive response to Chinese moves in Ladakh.

Conclusion: Tensions at LAC this time are unlikely to move pass like previous stand off which momentarily impacted Sino-Indian ties. The current standoff is different from previous ones due to intensity of confrontations, number of troops involved and the kind of logistics/ equipment being deployed. Also, Beijing is controlling military initiative by keeping the element of surprise and diplomatic narrative which in turn facilitates a protracted standoff. It is therefore seem plausible that Chinese may not withdraw from the advanced areas being vital defense locations. India at the same cannot afford military actions due to capability mismatch and Chinese geographical advantage. Chinese plan to stay permanently in these areas will exacerbate political and military pressure on India. New Delhi has been totally surprised by Chinese actions and lacks a comprehensive strategy to counter Beijing’s moves.

 

[1] The Pangong Lake’s northern bank juts forward like a palm, and various protrusions are identified as “fingers” to demarcate territory. China refuted Indian claims stating its troops are within its own territory.

[2]Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO) which is now a revamped advance landing ground (ALG), the highest airstrip in the world where India can land C-130 J aircraft giving a huge boost to its strategic airlift capability.

[3]The commissioning of Doulat Baig Oldi base allows Indian military to interdict CPEC; as it is merely 12 miles (aerial distance, though it is about 100 Km from the Karakoram highway) further strengthened Chinese fears.

Ahsan Hamid Durrani is an Islamabad based analyst with interest in socio-political issues. The detailed version of this article has been published at Global Village Space. This version has been published here with author’s consent. 

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