Monday, 24 January, 2022
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Clash at Pangong lake shows India has to prepare for the unexpected

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India must be vigilant and at the same time prepare for the worst.

This Independence Day brought unexpected news of troops from China’s Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) pelting stones at Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) personnel at Pangong Tso. Many ITBP personnel were injured in the incident.

On August 19, 2017, a video of the incident emerged. At first glance the video confuses a viewer. It requires at least two viewings to understand that the Chinese soldiers crossed the limits of sane behaviour. They were not only pelting stones at ITBP personnel, but also hitting and kicking them. It was an unprecedented act and terrible behaviour by the Chinese PLA.

It was an impossible task to geo-locate the video after the first few viewings. However, the bright idea of stitching video frames together gives a panoramic view of the location.

The long shadows of the men and the fact the altercation took place in the morning narrowed the probability of the incident having taken place on the Northern shores of Pangong Tso. The incident obviously took place between two differently perceived borders.

The task became easier when the satellite images were seen with North-facing down. The video was geo-located to 33 43 12N 78 45 49E, which is very close to the perceived Chinese border. In the video, ITBP personnel are on the right and the PLA troops on the left. The ITBP personnel are seen carrying white banners to indicate to the PLA that they have violated patrolling lines.

PLA and jostling

The PLA using jostling to push the opposing army behind a border is not a new tactic. It was seen during the Ussuri River incident in 1969 when troops from China and the erstwhile USSR jostled in the snow.

The Indian Army experienced the same at Doklam area in June and July of 2017. But PLA troops pelting stones at ITBP personnel was unwarranted, and has never happened before.

Why the incident at Pangong Tso was an aberration 

The incident would never have occurred if the PLA abided by the relevant treaties and agreements regarding the Pangong Tso area. The routine protocol for any visual sighting of opposing forces is being followed by the ITBP personnel — to show white banners; then convey the message on megaphones or loudspeakers. The physical interaction should never have taken place at all.

This video clearly puts the PLA in the dock. It is very clear and apparent that the Chinese resorted to physical violence first, and had some axe to grind after the Doklam standoff. The Chinese soldier jumping and kicking ITBP personnel from almost 2-4 metres above was uncalled for. Surely the Indian government will take this issue up with the relevant authorities in China.

Importance of the area

The area lies close to the Southern tip of Aksai Chin, that has been occupied by China since the 1962 war with India. Pangong Tso is sacred to Indians and Tibetans. Today, India controls less than one-third of the 160 km-long lake. There is no way Indians can hope to circumvent the lake in their lifetime.

Strategically, this area is very important because it provides access to the areas north of the Himalayas on the Tibetan plateau. Both China and India have deployed speedboats to patrol the lake.

South of the Pangong Tso and East Chushul, there is another freshwater lake named Spanggur Tso. It is presently under Chinese control and is the source of many jibes against Indian officers. At almost every Border Personnel Meeting, Indian officers are reminded that they can’t eat the freshwater fish of the Spanggur Tso.

What to watch for 

All our forces must remain vigilant for the unexpected. It is a perpetual habit and tactic by the Chinese to open up new fronts if one is closed. China today knows that the Doklam issue has become a stalemate, and is not likely to be resolved. Hence, the PLA will make all efforts to grab land in areas that are sensitive to India, so that they can be used to strike bargains in either Ladakh or Arunachal Pradesh.

India must be vigilant and at the same time prepare for the worst — a war with its nuclear neighbour.

Col Vinayak Bhat (retd) is a Military Intelligence veteran of the Indian Army with vast experience of satellite imagery analysis. He has worked as Chinese interpreter and is a specialist on PLA and Pakistan’s Armed Forces. He tweets @rajfortyseven

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  1. ” so they can’t help but try and flex their muscles”,are you talking about India sending invasion army to cross 1890 treaty border? You are absolutely right!

    “Be better prepared next time for something more than Jostling.”? I think India invasion army have prepared this when they cross 1890 treaty border, right?

    BTW, clearly this was another case India send its army cross the ACL and get their deserved kicking back. See the google map. The jostle occurred in the place of round area of end of Chinese road. It is CHINESE side of ACL. Face the FACT, please.! I know it is very difficult for India to do that. Docklam case actually is very clear. But Indians still can have a straight face to spin.

    Also you were joking when you said “Indian soldiers retreated a bit back and the Chinese soldiers didn’t advance any further because they knew it could get bloody with Indian soldiers may be resorting—– to may be who knows firing bullets.”, right? Chinese army has a not shot first policy. But definitely will not allow invaders to fire second shot.

  2. Nice work Col sir,

    Even I had to do some sleuthing to find out where it happened as it was not clear which army was on wich side. (I will consider the shadow idea of geo-locating pictures in conjuction with time :).

    According to my reading of media reports, This incident seems to have taken place in the Srijap area which is the North shore of Pangong Tso. Based on camera angle facing south from the mountain and with the river in the south, it must be the Indian army in the right side of the video with the chinese army on the left.

    I think my Indian brothers need to be better prepared next time as the rogue PLA came in intentionally armed with Iron rods, slings and stones to hurt. Indian soliders behaved professionally hoping it would be just a jostle and didn’t expect the PLA to fight dirty. Two Indian soldiers suffered head injuries. I am basing this all on looking at google maps and by media reports. I think the Indian soldiers retreated a bit back and the Chinese soldiers didn’t advance any further because they knew it could get bloody with Indian soldiers may be resorting—– to may be who knows firing bullets.

    I would recommend my Indian brothers to be more prepared to face the sly PLA. It may not be under the complete control of Xi Jinping with many (possible) rogue generals testing his leadership.

    I am not a big fan of (big) armies in any case as they can control polity as a deep state and security based state will always view things strategically/tactically —- but practically speaking the PLA might be more dangerous in Asia, so they can’t help but try and flex their muscles and want to test their Chinese toy weapons.

    So RESIST PLA and more power to the Indian Army. Be better prepared next time for something more than Jostling. Maybe Brass knuckles from some Indian Soldiers wouldn’t hurt.

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