No Real Disengagement in Eastern Ladakh
Much is being unwisely made about several developments on the Line of Actual Control in eastern Ladakh.
One, that both the Indian and the Chinese armies are withdrawing some 2 kms from the Patrolling Position on the Galwan — the site of the barbaric PLA attack June 15 on an Indian patrol out to verify if the Chinese troops had left the area. This was promised by a Chinese Division-level commander, Major General Liu Lin, heading the South Xinjiang Military District, in his meeting June 6 at the Chushul-Moldo post with the GOC XIV Corps, Lt Gen Harinder Singh.
It is the location where the Galwan River runs into the bigger Shyok River. Along the western shore of the Shyok running north to south is the strategic Depsang-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi (DSDBO) highway reaching the Karakorum Pass.
Satellite imagery shows the PLA has decamped from the bend up-river. It is very likely though that the Chinese troops up and left the area before the two sides agreed they’d do so because the seasonal snow-melt with freezing waters had swamped the PLA camp forcing the Chinese to get the hell back to their own lines on higher ground.
Unless satellite images of that area when the Chinese actually departed indicate otherwise, this is what must be assumed by the Indian government to have happened. Delhi should not needlessly credit China with adhering to whatever was agreed upon in Chushul, when in actuality the flooding waters drove out the Chinese. Whence, it may be argued that it is only India that has really affected a pull-back of its presence on the Galwan. This is important because the Chinese government may be inclined to use the fact of the PLA troops being forced by an act of Nature to retreat as something they willingly undertook to do, and pitch it as a means of reviving mutual trust.
It leaves unclear what the Indian army hopes to do on the Galwan. Will it seek the cover of this minor disengagement to write off the chance of dominating the heights in strength on the ridge overlooking the DSDBO road by pleading deficiency in the logistics system? This seems to be the case because a news report refers to the difficulty of supplying such posts at 16,000 feet altitude the year round using the twin-routes via Zoji La and Manali? As an army source told a newspaper, “a semi-permanent habitat” presumably on this mountain range is not on the cards.
In the event, the legitimate thing to ponder is this: If the Indian army misses the opportunity of permanently occupying the heights above the Shyok NOW, later may be too late. Because the PLA will surely preempt it by setting itself up on the ridge line. They have already signaled their intent to do so with their Galwan adventure.
And because the statement issued in Beijing at the conclusion of the telephonic negotiation July 5 by the two Special Representatives — NSA Ajit Doval and the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi articulates the basis for such prospective action by reiterating China’s claim on the entire Galwan Valley. The statement issued by the MEA, of course, makes no mention of it. But China will naturally go by its document, not Delhi’s.
Secondly, the two sides moving back at Gogra and Hot Springs, was the easiest action to affect in the main because PLA did not cross the LAC at these locations. But, strangely, these are the places around which the two sides agreed to establish what is referred to as “buffer zones”.
Are such zones different from the ‘no man’s land’ separating the two armies that has always existed and if so, in what way are they different? And what’s the purpose of these buffers and why at these points only? Or, is the buffer zone concept an enlargement of the no man’s land to reduce the frequency of enemy incursions and prevent head-on clashes?
It would make sense if this concept were extendable to the rest of the LAC. Such a buffer zone would be helpful at the Y-junction on the Depsang plains the PLA has occupied, preventing Indian troops from legitimately accessing Patrolling Point 14. This is a flashpoint China apparently doesn’t want to deactivate.
Finally, does the requirement for the opposing forces to move back 2 kms not apply to the Pangong Tso area? Because here the PLA are entrenched not only on the shoreline with a motorable road connecting the terrain features Finger 4 and Finger 8, but also on the top of these hills — on Fingers 4,5,6,7 and 8 — an expanse of territory well within India’s claimline that Indian troops regularly patrolled as of last summer, i.e., until the 2019 patrolling season.
There’s not a hint from the Chinese that the PLA will be moving out from these parts that boast of some pucca structures. So, how will annexation of this territory by China be reconciled by the Modi government with Minister S Jaishankar’s demand of June 17 for an unconditional restoration of status quo ante? Or, is Prime Minister Narendra Modi tending towards accepting this new territorial fait accompli?
The only good thing to occur with respect to the Pangong Lake is that the Indian Navy is sending its armed patrol boats. Hopefully, they will be manned by its Marine commando (MARCOS) — the country’s finest, most capable, Special Force. It may be recalled just how successful the Marcos were when deployed during Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat’s foreshortened tenure as CNS in the mid-90s on the Wullar Lake in Kashmir. They ruthlessly shut off attempts at riverine infiltration by the Pakistan-based Lashkar jihadis. We can expect the MARCOS with some unusual tactics to keep the peace, stop the Chinese from messing around, and instill the fear of God in the godless PLA troopers. Hereafter, the contest for the Pangong Tso is bound to be more even.
All of which leads one to wonder if there’ll really be a meaningful disengagement in this region controlled by XIV Corps? Yes, some small de-escalatory steps have been taken, but as matters stand, the PLA is still where it is ensconced on the Pangong, and China has reasserted its claim on the Galwan Valley.
This last means the Chinese armed units have not withdrawn any great distance from their forward positions and can renew their annexation offensive at any time of their choosing. This is not progress towards a peaceful resolution. If anything, it should convince the Indian army to redouble its efforts at cementing its presence, especially on the Galwan ridge, and not pull back too much its forces or the warfighting wherewithal hauled up there — the howitzers and air defence missiles in particular, that constitute a deterrent. These should be here to stay.
Cover photograph Basit Zargar - Army movement in Srinagar-Leh highway.