The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has opened a new front along the disputed Line of Actual Control (LAC), with its “provocative military movements” on the southern bank of Pangong Tso lake in Ladakh in the intervening night of August 29 and 30 aimed at altering the status quo in the area, people familiar with the developments said on Monday.
So far, Chinese aggression in this sector was confined to the lake’s northern bank, the Finger Area that has emerged as the toughest part of the disengagement process.
“The PLA’s intentions stand exposed. Instead of carrying out disengagement and restoring the status quo ante in the existing friction areas, China is bent upon changing the status quo in new areas,” the officials said.
In a statement on the latest Chinese provocation, army spokesperson Colonel Aman Anand said on Monday that the PLA has violated the consensus reached during military and diplomatic engagements to reduce tension in eastern Ladakh, where the two armies have been locked in a tense confrontation since early May.
He said the army took measures to strengthen its positions and thwart the PLA’s intention to unilaterally change facts on the ground on the lake’s southern bank.
Experts concurred that the PLA was attempting to change the status quo in new areas.
“While there are areas on the northern bank, where the Indian Army only carries out patrolling, the southern bank is strongly held by us. The PLA is fully conscious of it. Any transgression by the PLA in this area is a clear indication that the PLA is trying to change the status quo and open a new front,” said Lieutenant General DS Hooda (retd), former Northern Army commander.
The northern bank of the lake has been at the centre of the current round of border tension, as the PLA has refused to withdraw from the Finger Area, which refers to a set of eight cliffs jutting out of the Sirijap range overlooking the lake.
Before the PLA grabbed positions on Finger 4 overlooking Indian deployments, the army would patrol up to Finger 8 that New Delhi considers as an integral part of its territory. The new positions held by the PLA have curtailed the scope of Indian patrols.
Fingers 4 and 8 are eight kilometres (km) apart.
“The Indian Army is committed to maintaining peace and tranquility through dialogue, but is also equally determined to protect its territorial integrity,” said the army statement.
A brigade commander-level flag meeting is in progress at Chushul to resolve the situation on the southern bank.
LAC tension has escalated at a time, when talks with China to reduce border tension in eastern Ladakh are stuck in a stalemate and the two sides have failed to bridge their differences on the disengagement and de-escalation process.
The military dialogue between senior commanders from the two sides has hit a roadblock due to Chinese reluctance to restore status quo ante in some key friction areas along the LAC.
The sizeable Chinese troop presence at friction points, particularly Pangong Lake and Depsang, is a cause for concern for the Indian Army. Disengagement has progressed smoothly at friction points in Galwan Valley and Hot Springs, but its pace is sluggish in the Gogra area.
De-escalation along the disputed border can only begin after disengagement between the two armies on the LAC.
The ground situation remains unchanged in Ladakh sector, where both armies have deployed almost 100,000 soldiers and weaponry in their forward and depth areas.
In a recent interview to HT, chief of defence staff General Bipin Rawat had explicitly stated that a military option to deal with transgressions by the PLA is on the table, but would be exercised only if talks between the two armies and the diplomatic option turned out to be unproductive.
Meanwhile, India’s acknowledgement of a fresh face-off with Chinese troops along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) reflects the grim reality of the situation along the disputed border after several rounds of talks couldn’t take forward the disengagement process, experts said on Monday.
A statement from the Indian Army said soldiers had pre-empted “provocative military movements” by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to change the status quo in the intervening night of August 29 and 30. It added that these actions “violated the previous consensus arrived at during military and diplomatic engagements” during the standoff in eastern Ladakh that had started in early May.
Over the past few weeks, after several rounds of talks between corps commanders on the ground and the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination (WMCC) on border affairs, the differences between the two sides on the disengagement and de-escalation process have emerged in the open.
The Chinese side has even referred to both sides having “positively evaluated the progress” in disengagement, but the Indian side has insisted that the process is a work in progress and more needs to be done to take it forward.
At the last weekly news briefing of the ministry of external affairs (MEA), spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said “complete disengagement requires re-deployment of troops by each side towards their regular posts on their respective sides of the LAC”, which can be done only through “mutually agreed reciprocal actions” by both sides.
Former navy chief Admiral (retired) Arun Prakash said the time had come for the Indian side to do a “reality check and prepare for the worst”. He added, “It’s a grim situation.”
The Indian side, Prakash believes, has misread the situation especially since the actions of the Chinese side have often differed from it said. “They seem to have decided to restore their boundary to whatever it was according to their historical interpretation,” he said.
Significantly, the latest clash occurred on the southern bank of Pangong lake, where most of the friction in this area has been on the northern bank.
The Chinese actions also run counter to Chinese envoy to India Sun Weidong’s assertion last week that the “existing situation on the ground is under control on the whole and there is no fresh standoff between the two forces”. The envoy has even described the June 15 clash – which resulted in the death of 20 Indian soldiers and unspecified Chinese casualties – as “a brief moment from the perspective of history”.
Sameer Patil, fellow for international security studies at Gateway House, a think tank, said the latest clash reflected the “obdurate attitude of the Chinese in resolving the standoff” along the LAC.
“The incident goes against what their diplomats have been saying. The Chinese are suing the diplomatic track to create a smokescreen while the Central Military Commission headed by President Xi Jinping is pushing the case on the ground,” he said.
Patil also believes the latest Chinese action could be part of efforts to shift the domestic narrative after several photos shared widely on China’s social media platforms purported to show the graves of Chinese troops killed in the June 15 clash.
“There have been at least four such images of tombstones and maybe the Chinese want to stonewall the domestic narrative and shift it to one of protecting national interests,” he said.
Prakash said India would need to “keep its feet firmly on the ground and look for alliances and partnerships” to tackle the challenges facing it. “If things take a military or kinetic turn, escalation won’t be in our hands,” he added.