Something unusual has been happening on the Line of Actual Control, the de facto border between India and Tibet, for the past four weeks. On 10 May, the Indian media broke the news about scuffles between Indian and Chinese soldiers on the north bank of Pangong Tso on the night of 5-6 May and at Naku La in north Sikkim on 9 May.
Since then, reports have emerged about intrusions and ‘face-offs’ in the Galwan River , on the north bank of Pangong Tso, and possibly at Hot Springs in Chang Chenmo River valley, and at Demchok. Mirror deployment has been carried out by both sides with additional troops, and reserves have been positioned to cater for any escalation. There are also reports of increased helicopter activity and ‘one-off’ deterrent fighter aircraft mission by India. There are some reports of increased military activity from other areas along the LAC, particularly in the central sector in Uttarakhand. Satellite images of fighter aircraft parked at Ngari, 50km from the LAC have been published in the media. There is speculation that patrol confrontations and Chinese build-up began end-April.
Chinese media and official spokespersons have accused India of aggressively trespassing Chinese claim line and blocking People’s Liberation Army (PLA) patrols. Chinese President Xi Jinping has exhorted his troops to be prepared to defend the nation.
In the absence of any government or military briefings, there are speculations galore about the details of the incidents on the LAC and the political/military aims of China. More so, after the two informal summits between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Xi — at Wuhan in 2018 and Mamallapuram in 2019 — wherein both leaders had committed to maintain peace and tranquility on the LAC and give strategic directions to their militaries on border management.
The starting point of any conflict between two nations is the political aim. Military actions are merely the means to achieve that aim. I will reverse the process and analyse the military situation and strategic importance of the areas of the India-China ‘face-offs’ to derive the political aims.
At the outset, let me be very categoric — just like in 1962, 1965, and 1999, we have once again been surprised both at the strategic and tactical levels. The manner in which we had to rush reinforcements from other sectors gives a clear indication that we were 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 defence units. Our tactical surveillance with UAVs and patrols has been inadequate to detect this large-scale movement close to the LAC. The ITBP mans the border and ironically is not under the command of the army.
As per unconfirmed reports, the PLA has crossed the LAC and physically secured 3-4 km of our territory along Galwan River and the entire area between Finger 5 and Finger 8 along the north bank of Pangong Tso, a distance of nearly 8-10 km (the areas are marked in this Indian Express sketch in its 2017 report). There also seem to be minor incursions in the area of Hot Springs, in Ladakh’s Chang Chenmo River valley and at Demchok.
My assessment is that the PLA has deployed maximum one brigade each in Galwan River valley and along the north bank of Pangong Tso. Precautionary deployment would have been done at likely launch pads for offensive and other vulnerable areas along the LAC. Reserves would be on short notice to cater for Indian reaction/escalation. The airfield at Ngari has been upgraded and fighter aircraft have been positioned there. It is likely that additional troops have been deployed at Depsang plains, Hot Springs, Spanggur Gap, and Chumar.
It is pertinent to mention that the intrusion by regular troops is not linear like normal border patrols going to respective claim lines. If a brigade size force has secured 3-4 km in Galwan River, it implies that the heights to the north and south have been secured, thus securing a total area of 15 to 20 square km. Similarly, along Pangong Tso, the PLA brigade having secured 8-10 km on the north bank would have also secured the dominating heights to the north to physically control 35-40 square km. And if China subsequently realigns its claim line based on the areas secured, the net area secured would increase exponentially.
Our deployment in the central sector is thin. PLA build-up of maximum one brigade in the central sector is to tie down our strategic reserves by posing a threat and to gain territory in the event of escalation. In north Sikkim, a limited threat indication has been given in the plateau area to caution us against an escalatory offensive into the Chumbi valley. Precautionary deployment would have been done in Arunachal Pradesh.
The likely military aim of China is to stop the development of our border infrastructure in Ladakh that threatens Aksai Chin and National Highway (NH) 219, particularly in Galwan , Hot Springs and Pangong Tso sectors, and depending on our reaction, to be prepared for a limited border skirmish.
Strategic importance of the ‘face–off’ areas
Ladakh is the only area where physical military collusion can take place between Pakistan and China. Sub Sector North (SSN) lies just to the East of Siachen glacier and is our vulnerability due to the tenuous lines of communications, notwithstanding the recommissioned Daulat Beg Oldi airfield. It is also the only area that provides direct access to Aksai Chin from India. China does not want any threatening build-up in SSN. Fifteen years ago, a Chinese military war game was conducted that visualised a division size force along with a mechanised force launching an offensive from SSN into Aksai Chin.
Keeping in view our vulnerability, we began constructing two roads to SSN in 2007. The first was from Sosoma in Nubra River valley via Saser La pass. Unfortunately, Saser La is snowbound. Unless we make a tunnel, it would at best remain a summer road. The second, 255-km-long road was built along the Shyok River valley from Darbuk via Murgo and Depsang. While this is a marvel of engineering through the gorges of Shyok River, it runs parallel to the LAC up to Murgo. The junction of Shyok and Galwan rivers is only 5 km from the LAC. We commenced construction of a branch road to the LAC and this resulted in the face-off in the Galwan River valley. China does not want us to create defences in the Galwan River valley to protect the road to SSN. The earlier face-off in Depsang plains in 2013 was also linked to this road.
The other approach to Aksai Chin is from the south via the Chang Chenmo River valley, at the end of which is located our post of Hot Springs, 3 km short of Kongka La. We have developed a road to this area from Lukung via Phobrang – Marsimik La and along the Chang Chenmo River. This is possibly the area of a minor face-off.
From this road, another road branches off at Phobrang to the southeast to Ane La pass. This pass is open throughout the year. This area allows us to get behind the Chinese defences on the north bank of Pangong Tso at Sirijap and Khurnak. The north bank of Pangong Tso has a number of spurs, known as fingers, coming down from the north. We physically control the area up to Finger 4 but patrol up to Finger 8 on the LAC near Sirijap. The Chinese have their post at Finger 8 but claim up to Finger 2 from where both these roads can be threatened. During Kargil 1999, the Chinese had built a road up to Finger 5 where the third face-off is taking place.
Ngari in the Indus Valley is an important Chinese base with an airfield. NH 219 passes through Ngari. It is only 50 km from Demchok and here we have the terrain advantage. Ngari can also be threatened from Chumar. This is the reason for frequent face-offs in these areas.
From the strategic point of view, China had secured all Indian territories it needed to before 1962, that is primarily Aksai Chin required for the Tibet-Xinjiang NH 219. Following the 1962 War, it vacated all additional captured territory, barring some tactically important areas in Ladakh denying access to Aksai Chin and NH 219 as per its 1960 claim line in Depsang, Galwan River, Sirijap-Khurnak Fort north of Pangong Tso, and Kailash Range 10 km north of Demchok.
Since then, the confrontations along the LAC have been more about China asserting its hegemony by embarrassing India. However, India’s developing border infrastructure has altered the situation.
China is extremely suspicious of India. It believes that in the long term, India’s strategic aim is to restore the status quo ante 1950 by recovering Aksai Chin and other areas captured/secured by China. India’s alignment with the US, the presence of Tibetan government-in-exile in India, and the aggressive claims on Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) and Gilgit Baltistan — through which the prestigious China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) passes — only strengthen China’s suspicion.
Much as I would like to speculate about China’s broader political aims, the direct political aim is simple — to maintain the “status quo” along the LAC on its own terms, which is to forestall any threat, howsoever remote, to Aksai Chin and NH 219.
Stare China down
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 preempted us.
India is in a catch-22 situation. No government will survive a setback on the LAC. Every time China precipitates the situation, even with limited forces, we have to be prepared for the worse, which forces us to mobilise at a much larger scale. Ideally, we must seize the initiative for quid pro quo actions either preemptively or in response. However, our military capability imposes caution. But we can certainly give the aggressor a bloody nose and stalemate it.
Be that as it may, we have the capability and the will to stare China down and force it to blink. Neither country wants war, hence diplomacy has to be given the first priority to restore status quo ante 1 April 2020. However, if diplomacy does not work, then India should be prepared for border skirmishes and even a limited war.
Last but not the least, once the status quo has been restored, we must hold the Narendra Modi government and the military accountable for the intelligence failure, the loss of territory, if any, that has taken place, and the asymmetry with respect to our capability vis-a vis China.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post-retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.