Satellite images show the Chinese PLA have moved at least 5 km inside Indian territory and are setting up base in the strategic Tsari Chu valley.
New Delhi: The threat of the Doklam face-off escalating has receded in the wake of the meetings at Wuhan and Qingdao between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping. The issue, although not resolved, seems to have been put on the backburner.
But Doklam is not the only such area where the Chinese have tried to salami-slice a neighbour’s territory (Bhutan being another) to give themselves a tactical advantage. Army Chief General Bipin Rawat had earlier spoken about this Chinese approach to slow expansion.
The Tsari Chu valley in Arunachal Pradesh is another such area.
It is evident from satellite pictures that over the years the Chinese have moved at least 5 km into what should be Indian territory. They may have taken advantage of the remoteness of the area and the absence of Indian forces.
The Chinese PLA presence is now well established here. A new road that can be accessed by jeeps is being constructed, the river-bank is being improved and new construction post-Doklam, some of it underground, has been noticed.
ThePrint makes an effort to understand this area of special significance through satellite imagery.
The Ministry of External Affairs refused to comment on the matter.
Tsari Chu or Gelen Bung is a holy Tibetan river that is a circumambulation route for the Mt Dakpa Sheri or Pure Crystal Mountain in the Tibetan Autonomous Region. The Buddhists consider it a pious duty to visit Yulmed Gompa and go around the Dakpa Sheri peak once every 12 years during the Year of the Monkey.
This 70 km-long pilgrimage route for Tibetans passes through the village of Longju, or what used to be the first Indian village when the McMahon line was marked in the 1900s, while Taksing was the last Indian village on the pilgrimage route.
Today, Longju is claimed by China, while Taksing remains firmly embedded in Arunachal Pradesh, on the Indian side of the contested border. Until 1959, Longju was in Indian possession.
The Tsari Chu valley has also great strategic significance as Migyitün village, now called Zharixiang by the Chinese, is the border hamlet through which the McMahon Line passes. It is seen as one of the ingress routes into Arunachal Pradesh.
The river divides two sub-districts, Taksing and Limeking, of the Upper Subansiri district. India, since Independence, has not made any concerted efforts to improve infrastructure in this area. Even today the area on the Indian side remains remote despite its military importance.
The Longju incident of 25 August, 1959, where an Assam Rifles post was attacked by the Chinese PLA without provocation and completely wiped out, remains an interesting part of military history. It is surprising to note that the Chinese suffered no casualties.
In December 1960, when the Chinese withdrew from Lonju after an epidemic, leaving behind 100 dead, the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru wanted to re-occupy it but was dissuaded from doing so by the Army, citing logistical problems.
The Chinese have taken full advantage of the prevailing situation since the early 1900s.
The confusion regarding the Sino-Indian boundary and India’s consequent lackadaisical attitude has prompted China, especially the PLA, to slowly encroach on Indian territory.
Over the last six decades, slowly but steadily, China has illegally occupied part of Tsari Chu valley rightfully claimed by India as its territory.
Illegally occupied post
In the late 1990s and early 2000, the Chinese PLA had started the campaign of improving its border roads, especially in Eastern Tibet close to the Chumbi valley, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh.
In the same period in the Tsari Chu area, the PLA had established a company-level post at least 3 km inside Indian territory. At the time, the post was hardly an administrative barracks with a jeepable track serving it.
Located on the eastern side of the river, at a height of 2700 m, the post had three barracks arranged in a C-shape, with a small listening post slightly ahead.
With the passage of time and India’s continued indifference, the PLA has been encouraged to extend the track further with a bridge and another hut at around 2600m height on the west side of the river.
Due to the paucity of good temporal resolution in the satellite images that I have perused, the timeline of activities becomes broader. However, it becomes vividly clear that before December 2013, a battalion-level post was surreptitiously constructed by the PLA approximately 500 m above, in a very precariously located shoulder of the Tsari Chu valley.
It is obvious from the satellite images that the location, east of Tsari Chu, is extremely advantageous to a defender in this narrow valley as it has cliffs on two sides facing India, which sharply drop by almost 500m.
The construction was possibly kept secret due to the area being heavily forested. China has been cautious not to cut trees so that the extent of the post is not revealed in satellite imagery. But it failed to camouflage two huts that demonstrate a deployment of more than 600m sideways.
A new bridge has also been constructed next to the old bridge and the road upgraded to an all-weather one capable of handling heavy traffic.
In 2017, especially after the Doklam episode, China has improved surface infrastructure in this area.
The main company post now has at least 10 barracks, in addition to the previous C-shaped barracks. A small hydroelectric generator has been installed to provide electricity to the entire complex. A new training/sports ground has been created next to the complex.
The satellite imagery of 27 February, 2018, indicates that the road surface has been further improved. A lot of new construction-related vehicles have been observed.
The river banks have been lined with concrete and stone revetments to avoid erosion and also strengthen the road to sustain heavier traffic.
A new road of about 1.5 km is being constructed from the river-level road to the post about 500m above. The road as of 27 February, 2018, is a fair weather jeepable road likely to be a proper black-topped road soon.
New construction, which started after July 2017, has been noticed on the top battalion post. Some of it seems to be partially underground.
The Chinese PLA seems to have entrenched itself deeply inside Indian territory by over 5 km.
China’s age-old policy of salami slicing, which has paid it great dividends in South China Sea, is being adopted by the PLA in the Himalayan region too.
India simply cannot afford to be complacent at this juncture. It must develop this border area in earnest with the best infrastructure and logistical facilities.