Priyanka Sohoni
A file photo of PM Modi during his informal summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping. | @narendramodi | Twitter
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Twelve days after the foreign ministers of India and China met in Moscow, the two sides held the much-awaited Corps Commander-level talks at Moldo to work out a comprehensive plan for disengagement and eventual de-escalation at the Line of Actual Control.

The joint statement released on 22 September says: “They agreed to earnestly implement the important consensus reached by the leaders of the two countries, strengthen communication on the ground, avoid misunderstandings and misjudgments, stop sending more troops to the frontline, refrain from unilaterally changing the situation on the ground, and avoid taking any actions that may complicate the situation.” A rather long sentence, but one that does not hold any hope that things will get better anytime soon.  If anything, it is indicative of the diplomatic impasse and a likelihood of continuation of the volatile status quo.

I analyse the situation with respect to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)’s physical control of the 1959 Claim Line with focus on Sub Sector North (SSN), popularly known as the Depsang Plains or Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) Sector.


Also read: Xi’s motivations behind LAC standoff and why China has been hyperactive since 2017


PLA status 1959 Claim Line

China’s immediate political and military aims — to prevent India from developing border infrastructure that threaten Aksai Chin and other areas captured before/during the 1962 War — are achieved by securing territory up to the 1959 Claim Line, first mentioned in Zhou Enlai’s letter to Jawaharlal Nehru. Since May this year, China has physically secured the1959 Claim Line in Galwan, Hot Springs-Kugrang River-Gogra and North of Pangong Tso. In SSN, it is yet to assert its physical presence, but has aggressively prevented our troops from patrolling up to the LAC. The deployment of our troops is restricted to the West of the 1959 Claim Line. The only other area left is Demchok, which being inhabited, may be left for later resolution/usurpation.

The 1959 Claim Line is strategic in concept and tactically forecloses all Indian options to threaten Aksai Chin and other areas under Chinese occupation. This line also makes our defences in SSN, Hot Springs-Kongka La-Gogra, and North of Pangong Tso extremely vulnerable to isolation and defeat.

In the next two months, both sides could prepare and settle for continuation of the status quo or either side may attempt to raise the stakes in tune with its political and military objectives. Given the differential in capabilities and the tactical advantages gained by the PLA through its preemptive operations, the probability of India raising the stakes is low. The likely pattern of a PLA offensive in a limited war has been discussed by me earlier. This analysis is restricted to examining the probability of the PLA securing the 1959 Claim Line through controlled escalation in SSN.


Also read: LAC crisis will be a long haul, can cost both India and China


Terrain evaluation of SSN

Depsang Plains are an extension of the Tibetan plateau with a base height of 5,200 meters (17,000 feet), interspersed with gradual hill features up to heights between 5,500-6,000 meters (18,000–19,500 feet). The plains are irregular in shape, measuring 60-70 km west to east and 40-50 km north to south. To the north, they are bounded by Karakoram Range; to the east, by Lak Tsung Range, the western watershed of Karakash River; and to the south by the Shahi Kangri Range. Siachen glacier is 50km to the west. The terrain, including gradual hill features, can be easily negotiated by wheeled and tracked vehicles. Hence, the area is conducive for mechanised operations. See image below.

Google Earth Image with approximate annotations

As I had written in my article on 28 may, Depsang Plains are “our vulnerability due to the tenuous lines of communications, notwithstanding the recommissioned Daulat Beg Oldi airfield that lies within the artillery range of the LAC. 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 road, 255-km-long, 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, unfortunately, it runs parallel to the LAC. At the junction of Shyok and Galwan rivers, it is only 5 km from the LAC.”

Annotated Google Map image

Also read: Linking LAC peace with good relations shows India still doesn’t get China


LAC versus the 1959 Claim Line in Depsang Plains

The 1959 Claim Line runs north to south from the Karakoram Range via Bottle Neck/Y Junction and further south to Jivan Nala. Prior to 1962, our posts were 5-10 km to the East of the Claim Line in the northern half of the plain, opposite DBO airfield. In the Southern half, these were 30-40 km east of Bottle Neck. In 1993, the LAC coincided with the 1959 Claim Line in the northern half of the plains, but East of the Bottle Neck, it was at 18-20 km. However, we never physically occupied the southern half of the plains and with a base at Burtse, the Indo Tibetan Border Police patrolled up to Patrolling Points 10, 11, 12 and 13.

Once we constructed the DBO Road and started developing lateral roads to the LAC,  the PLA wanted to deny us the depth of 20 km east of Bottle Neck, and hence, reasserted its claim through the face-off in 2013. After the face-off, we continued patrolling up to the LAC until April this year. As on date, the PLA is preventing our patrols from going east of Bottle Neck. However, it seems that it has not physically deployed troops in strength.


Also read: Pakistan’s ‘upgrade’ of Gilgit-Baltistan is linked to the India-China stand-off


Prognosis

The probability of the PLA securing the southern half of the Depsang Plains up to Bottle Neck to reach its 1959 Claim Line are very high. This is a low-hanging fruit for the Chinese because we have not contested the stopping of our patrols since May. Given our vulnerability, it is unlikely that we will preempt or contest the PLA’s actions.

The 1959 Claim Line is now likely to be the new LAC in all areas, except Demchok. However, since formally accepting the 1959 Claim Line would undermine the domestic reputation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, the most pragmatic solution could be to declare the entire area between the 1959 Claim Line and 1993 LAC as an extended buffer zone, where no troops will be deployed or any defences/border infrastructure created. This can be a face-saving solution for both Modi and Xi Jinping. An agreement on above lines may pave the way for disengagement and de-escalation before the winter sets in.

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.

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11 Comments Share Your Views

11 COMMENTS

  1. Sir, With all due respect as a senior Indian Army officer, the message from this post seem to be very defensive.

    In a public post expectation was to be balanced or solution oriented.

    I’m sure Indian army is capable enough to take all the facts taken into account and actively working is on to strengthen our positions.

  2. It is said everywhere that Indians lack the „killer instinct“. We are very proud that we have never attacked any country. Peoples from China, Afghanistan, Central Asia, Iran, Turkey would attack India at will, loot it and go back. Even Greece !

    We as a civilization are „defensive“ in nature and not aggrresive enough. Maybe a gene deficiency or getting used to having plenty ?!

  3. IT would be enlightening if the General could write a piece on if and what lessons have been learnt compared to the HIMALAYAN BLUNDER.
    We have had over 52 + 6 years since the 1962 war.
    What was done in 52 years and what was done in past 6 years?
    Are we headed for HIMALAYAN BLUNDER II ?

  4. The proposed solution mentioned in this article about creating a buffer zone between the 1959 Claim Line and 1993 LAC as an extended buffer zone, where no troops will be deployed or any defences/border infrastructure, seems the most practical solution for both China and India. And they should also agree to keep it that way permanently. China is a much mature country and so is India which is the reason there is stability in both countries, unlike Pakistan which is having all kinds of internal and external troubles and going towards being a failed state.

  5. It’s funny how so many analysis prescribes some strategy or other as if India and China are some squabbling married couple who can amicably resolve their differences if they just “talk”. The reality is far more complicated. China is in an imperialist expansion mode just like Nazi Germany was. And just like then, much of the world is just figuring out who Xi Jinping really is. And they are more powerful than India. But this does not mean India cannot play a weak hand well. We are in truly dangerous waters now, half due to China’s expansionist tendencies, and half due to our historical neglect of national security.

  6. Bravo. First military and political elites were caught napping since may. Then you loose 20 brave men, and now you give up, large chunks of your motherland without a fight , due to “vulnerablities”. In every other patriotic country this kind of elites would be tried for treason and be sent to jail.

  7. Pray tell me Gen. Panay, what were you as the G-O-C Northen Command doing without occupying the Southen Part of the Depsang Plains?..

  8. If, as the author claims, we would be unlikely to contest the 1959 Claim Line becoming the new LAC then what incentive would India be giving China to accept a buffer zone?

  9. As per the article,the implicit understanding is that China is sceptical of Indian intentions in Aksai Chin;then the logical question would be: Is China ready to negotiate a settlement that transforms the present lac to international border; if not, why not ;and what are the India’s losses/options in such a bargain to settle the entire lac as permanent border?

  10. Sir,
    In your column and many other articles, I often read the following lines “PLA has aggressively prevented our troops from patrolling up to the LAC”, but no one mentions what does the Indian side do when prevented? Do we simply walk away?
    I would also like to know, since 1962, it is always the PLA, who makes moves which puts them in an advantages position. Why is it that the Indian side never makes such tactical moves? Even after 70 years, why is it that we are always two steps behind them? I firmly believe that Indian army is among the best.

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