Geopolitics

Another Face Off With PLA in Pangong Tso Area
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 16 Sep , 2019

Another face off between an Indian Army patrol and PLA occurred north of Pangong Tso Lake on September 11, 2019, which some media reports describe as “scuffle”.  Media quoting an unnamed source says, “Indian soldiers were on a patrol when they were confronted by PLA soldiers, who strongly objected to their presence in the area. This led to a scuffle between the rival soldiers, with both sides sending some reinforcements to the area”.  This is the same area where PLA soldiers in August 2017 had attacked an Indian patrol with iron rods and stones and our soldiers had also retaliated. Latter incident, which was much more violent than the recent one, was concurrent to the standoff in Doklam area between the Indian Army and intruding PLA constructing a road in Bhutanese territory. With respect to the September 11 incident, Army sources say, “There was a face-off between the two armies but it got over after the delegation-level talks between two sides. The face-off is over now and it had de-escalated and disengaged fully after delegation-level talks yesterday (Wednesday).”

According to media, Army has also stated that similar incidents can take place along the LAC in view of its exercise next month. A Joint Army-Air Force Exercise ‘Him Vijay’ is scheduled to be held in Arunachal Pradesh in October to test Army’s three Integrated Battle Groups (IBGs) involving some 15,000 troops of its Mountain Strike Corps to exercise real war scenarios. But it is not being undertaken close to the LAC, which precludes the need for informing PLA about the event. Yet, given the past conduct of China before or concurrent to high-level meetings between the two nations, China can be expected to indulge in intrusions in backdrop of the second informal summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping in India next month. It may be recalled that before the visit of China’s Prime Minister Le Keqiang to India in May 2013, PLA made a 19 km deep intrusion in area of Raki Nala in Eastern Ladakh, stayed put during Keqiang’s visit, and finally withdrew only after India ‘succumbed’ to PLA demand of dismantling cameras in area of Chumar, 400 km south of the intrusion area.    

Following the informal summit between Modi and  Xi at Wuhan on April 27-28, 2018, statement issued by MEA said PM Modi and President Xi reviewed developments in India-China relations from the strategic and long-term perspective. “They agreed to significantly enhance efforts to build on the convergences through the established mechanisms in order to create the broadest possible platform for the future relationship. They also agreed that both sides have the maturity and wisdom to handle the differences through peaceful discussion within the context of the overall relationship, bearing in mind the importance of respecting each other’s sensitivities, concerns and aspirations”, the statement read. But post, the Modi-Xi Wuhan Summit, Chinese media didn’t even make any reference to “strategic guidance to their respective militaries” other than quoting from Indian media.

Indian Army maintains that India and China have well established military mechanisms for maintenance of peace and tranquility in border areas and both countries have agreed to work towards a fair reasonable and mutually acceptable settlement of the boundary question on the basis of the 2005 Agreement on Political Parameters and Guiding Principles.”  The 2005 protocol details steps to be followed in case troops come face to face. It says both sides shall cease their activities in the area, not advance any further, and simultaneously return to their bases. Indian Army has issued detailed instruction in this regard, but has PLA issued similar instructions? Besides, China claims the whole of Arunachal Pradesh. Banner drill exists but PLA has been coming very deep in Eastern Ladakh and putting up banner that it is ‘Chinese territory’.

It is important to remember that to-date China has never admitted in intruding into our territory; always saying it is in Chinese territory. China is not only in illegal occupation of Aksai Chin (38,000 sq km) and Shaksgam (5180 sq km) but has incrementally sliced away huge swathes of India Territory. In 2013, Shyam Saran, former foreign secretary and Chairman of the NSAB, stated that though NSAB had been visiting forward areas of Ladakh, the Board doesn’t deal with “operational matters”. This was with reference to reports that Shyam Saran had been assigned by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to report on Chinese encroachments, and his report concluded that over the years China had encroached onto Indian Territory to the tune of 645 sq km. It is well understood that no Indian government would want such a report made public. Incidentally, why would NSAB not be interested in gauging Chinese encroachment, especially with former ambassador Phunchok Stopden concurrently stating on national TV that “over the years, India had ceded to China over 400 sq km of territory in Ladakh alone”. During Operation ‘Vijay’ in 1999, China developed a road in Eastern Ladakh towards DBO and established a post. It was reported by Army but was glossed over by the hierarchy.

We must acknowledge that China gives scant regard to protocols and agreements it signs. In constructing a road towards Bhutanese Army camp at Zomphiri in Doklam, which led to the Doklam standoff in 2017, China blatantly violated Bhutan-China written agreements that pending final boundary settlement, peace and tranquility be maintained along the boundary and both sides refrain from unilaterally altering the status on ground. India took a stand during the 73-day standoff at Doklam in 2017, because of the India-Bhutan special relationship. Doklam Plateu is not Indian Territory but why the Chinese keep praising the peaceful pullback is pretty simple; satellite imagery of January 17, 2018, showed PLA never thinned down. PLA had concrete posts, seven helipads, several dozen armoured vehicles, mechanized regiments, tank-transporters, B-vehicles, high observation tower less than 10m from forward Indian Army trench, fighting posts on almost every hillock on North Doklam plateau, communication trenches, new roads to cover North Doklam and bulldozers and tippers for road construction. During the Doklam standoff, China continued intruding across the LAC in Barahoti area in the Central Sector both on foot and by helicopter. China has now established a number of PLA posts in Shaksgam Valley.

On December 28, 2017, Chinese personnel (PLA in civil garb?) were found constructing a road 1.5 km across the Indian side of the LAC in Tuting area of Arunachal Pradesh. On January 6, 2018 a flag meeting was held at the point of intrusion, to which Chinese personnel drove up in vehicles. China claimed its construction workers “inadvertently” strayed into India’s side of LAC, which is a pack of lies. Any road construction by China along or astride the LAC is undertaken by PLA – same as in Doklam area.  The point up to which this intrusion took place had three feet of snow, indicated deliberate PLA plan. If the activity was not detected by chance, the road would have been extended further.   

Media reports of February 27, 2018, with satellite imagery showed PLA had moved into Arunachal Pradesh at least five km inside Indian Territory in Tsari Chhu valley and was well established:  battalion-sized post with barracks and underground construction; training / sports ground; hydro-electric generator; jeepable road, and; river banks lined with concrete and stone revetments. This intrusion was not sudden like Doklam, but PLA took advantage of absence of Indian troops and lack of roads on Indian side. Imagery showed road surface being improved and many new construction-related vehicles; possibly PLA plans to upgrade the intrusion into a brigade-sized post. The MEA when contacted by media reportedly refused to comment.

The problem in these areas is that little has been done in developing border infrastructure, other than Bogibeel Bridge over River Brahmaputra inaugurated by PM Modi on December 25, 2018, and commissioning of the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie (DSDBO) road in April 2019, construction of which began in 2000 with completion planned by 2012.  China has built nearly 5,000 km of rail network in the Tibetan plateau linking it with mainland all weather roads right up to the LAC in similarly inhospitable and high altitude terrain to sustain over 30 divisions including 5-6 rapid reaction forces in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). We could take a stand at Doklam because we had the communications to react there. This is hardly the case elsewhere, particularly in Arunachal Pradesh where our troops are sitting scores of km behind the LAC; a huge disadvantage.

China has 24×7 satellite cover of the LAC but India has no surveillance system worth the name. A hunter by chance discovered the Chinese road constructed 15 km road in Tuting area during December 2017. He informed the CRPF, who in turn informed the Army. Some 120 army personnel had to be rushed to the LAC taking them 19 hours to reach the intrusion area. With no roads to the LAC and no animal transport available, Army pressed into service a company of 300 porters to stock the troops. To feed the troops before the porters arrived, Army heli-dropped 100 packets of ready-to-eat meal and 30,000 packets of chocolates. It was no innocent PLA activity but well planned after an exercise of our troops had ended at the LAC. Bishing village, closest to the intrusion, had no road and still doesn’t have one.  

Periodic reports have been emerging of China feverishly engaged in mining close to the LAC. Yes, there was the Wuhan Summit and its sequel is coming up next month. There is also the 2005 Agreement on Political Parameters and Guiding Principles but Chinese actions prove they don’t give a damn about agreements. China is simmering with Pakistan cornered and its call for a closed door UNSC meet on Kashmir shouldn’t be brushed under the table only as a ‘compulsion’ because of the CPEC. China’s preparation for confronting the US include PLA presence in Pakistan and Iran; that’s why the recent announcement of placing 5000 troops in Iran. China is highly allergic to the Indo-US strategic partnership and it is committed to gobble up as much Indian Territory as possible in conjunction Pakistan. Speedy development of border infrastructure and fool-proof surveillance and monitoring needs direct intervention by PMO. So does the need for caution against more territorial ‘salami slicing’ by China.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Lt Gen Prakash Katoch

is a former Lt Gen Special Forces, Indian Army

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5 thoughts on “Another Face Off With PLA in Pangong Tso Area

  1. If China repeats incursions before high-level talks or at the time of an exercise, it is necessary to ‘pre-empt’ and thwart the PLA action with adequate planning and reinforcements. I am not suggesting the ‘forward policy’ but a well thought out manoeuvre.

  2. Could you please educate your readers if anything has changed with new govt in regard to policy in ladakh. Why our defence forces not informing these pollies regarding urgency of infrastructure urgently required. I am really concerned about Chinese activities who are busy occupying countries by stealth eg NewZealand and Australia. The plooies here are eqully dumb like Indian pollies.

  3. The veterans community in India should have acted as a pressure group and forced Modi to act. But all they can do is to exchange letters and share their angst or twiddle their thumbs helplessly. This man often falls at the feet of Xi Jinping and Trump and has implicit trust in the babus. Beware. He has a lot of shades of grey

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