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Year after first big India-China clash in Ladakh, tensions linger. This is how it all began

China-India tensions began in late April last year when the Chinese objected to India’s construction of footbridges in Galwan Valley but the first major clash was on 18 May 2020.

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New Delhi: It’s been exactly a year since the first major clash between Indian and Chinese troops, at Finger 4 of the Pangong Tso (lake) in Eastern Ladakh, which then led to the worst-ever tensions between both sides since the 1962 war. 

The skirmish had led to serious injuries on both sides. A year on, the situation at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) remains eerily calm but there has been a widening trust deficit between both countries.

While disengagement has taken place at Galwan Valley and the southern and northern banks of Pangong Tso, stand-offs and tensions continue in at least four other locations in Eastern Ladakh — Depsang Plains, Hot Springs, Gogra and Demchok.

The Chinese have pulled back troops from the Pangong Tso but they have deployed personnel at Rutog, some 70 km from the LAC.

This in effect means that while disengagement (pulling back of face-to-face troops) has taken place, de-escalation has not and the Chinese possess the ability to return to the very same spots they vacated in the Pangong Tso and elsewhere.

Similarly, India too has pulled back from the lake’s southern banks but continues to maintain a higher number of troops in the region besides those in reserve.

New Delhi has also put in place a summer strategy for Ladakh that involves key changes in deployment patterns, equipment and overall strategy.

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No quick-fix solution

Sources in the defence and security establishment said that while there has been some positive development in terms of dis-engagement, the road ahead is very long.

“There is a huge trust deficit. China had sought to change the status quo and draw a new LAC,” a senior officer from one of the Services involved in the whole stand-off told ThePrint. “The heightened deployment will continue. The whole process of de-escalation will take time. There is no quick-fix solution.” 

The source identified Depsang Plains and Demchok, where tensions predate the current round that began in April last year, as the sticky points that will take time.

“The region will see higher force concentration for time to come. The idea is to have enough troops in place in case of any further escalation and the capability to launch our own operations if need be like we did in the southern banks,” a second source said. “We have carried out multiple assessments of areas where they can strike and have plans accordingly.” 

Tensions first began in April in Galwan Valley

Sources said tensions first arose in the Galwan Valley around April end last year when the Chinese objected to four to five crossings that India was building near the Y junction.

ThePrint had in June last year reported that while the Chinese have been objecting to the 60 m-long bridge over the Shyok river, which was completed by India during the stand-off that month, the real problem was “certain construction” being carried out by India beyond the confluence point to prevent patrolling soldiers from wading into the water.

Sources explained that the Chinese never had any strong objection to the 60 m bridge but were adamant against construction being carried out near the Y junction that is about 800-900 m from Patrol Point (PP) 14, which itself is about 500 m from the LAC.

“We had built about 4-5 small foot crossings for our patrolling teams. This was because the soldiers had to wade through the water at five locations to reach PP 14. The Chinese saw this construction and raised objections at the local level through the hotline,” a third source who was involved in the stand-off explained. “The construction continued and we told them that this is within our territory and for only ease of patrolling.” 

The source said the Chinese hadn’t entered the Indian side until early June when they came in and built an observation post near PP 14. 

This led to another tent coming up near the Y junction and the eventual clash on 15 June, which led to casualties.

Following the clash, the Chinese came in large numbers and set up tents at the Y junction area and the Indians too built their own facilities with the two sides being divided by the river.

They only pulled back in early July after both sides agreed to disengage and build a buffer zone of sorts.

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The Ladakh clash

On 10 May last year, border tensions between India and China flared up once again with several troops from both sides left injured following fist fights and stone-pelting in the Ladakh and North Sikkim regions in a week.

The clash in Ladakh had taken place on the evening of 5 May. 

“The 5 May clash was more of a brawl among a limited number of soldiers. The PLA had objected to Indian troops patrolling,” a fourth source said. “Laid down protocols were followed to ease tensions. However, a few additional soldiers were brought in subsequent days after Chinese kept stopping Indian patrols.”

Sources said that on 5 May, the Indians were outnumbered.

“The first major clash in Eastern Ladakh between Indian and Chinese troops took place on the noon of 18 May 2020. This time there was a lot of stone pelting and use of sticks and rods,” the source added. “The Indians were adequately numbered initially to inflict a strong resistance. Soon six Chinese vehicles came and dropped off soldiers. These vehicles kept going back and coming with more soldiers. By the evening of 18 May, the Chinese had deployed about 700-800 soldiers at the Finger 4 area.”

The source explained that Indian deployment of additional troops could not match the Chinese speed here because the Indians had to trek a narrow path from Finger 3 to reach Finger 4.

The Chinese had brought in earth movers and set up various posts. In the following days, the Chinese also set up several tents and posts on the heights of Finger 4, as then revealed by satellite pictures.

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Chinese intruded and built up after 18 May

Sources said that after the move in the northern banks of Pangong Tso, the Chinese built up in other areas including Hot Springs and Gogra.

Sources admitted that the scale at which the Chinese moved indicated that there was planning that went into this and cannot be seen as a reactionary move to what happened in Pangong Tso. 

“We too began mirror deployment. One thing led to the other and eventually to actual stand-offs in many locations,” a fifth source said, explaining how things escalated on the ground.

ThePrint had on 25 May last year reported that India was carrying out “proactive localised preventive deployment” at multiple locations along the LAC in Eastern Ladakh even as it carried out “mirror deployment” in areas where it was being challenged by Chinese troops. 

Galwan and southern banks were turning points

Sources said that while Indians were initially caught off guard by the Chinese aggression, troops surprised the PLA too with counter action in the southern and northern banks.

“When you look back, one realises that the Galwan clash and the Indian action of occupying the southern banks heights and sending up a team against the Chinese at the northern banks were turning points,” the fifth source said.

Asked what this meant, the source said, “Galwan showed the Chinese that a cost will have to be paid if they continued with their aggression. Yes, 20 Indians lost their lives, most of them because of hypothermia, but the Chinese suffered fatal casualties as well.”

Talking about the southern banks, the source said, “The ops on the southern and northern banks of 29 August night showed that the Indians could also surprise the Chinese and can pull off what we call a quid pro quo (QPQ). 

“The Chinese were uneasy with our move and were forced to spend the harsh winters in the open. They agreed to pull back from the northern banks only because of this. Otherwise they were ready to stay put and mark a new physical LAC.”

(Edited by Arun Prashanth)

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