India-China standoff in east Ladakh: Beijing firm on changing LAC status, accessing Rezang La
The flatness of the southern bank of Pangong Tso, compared to the north, makes it all the more militarily important to both India and China
Xi Jinping's smile is a conundrum: It could express the calmness of a situation or indicate an impending storm. A few hours after the Chinese president — with his usual calm smiling countenance — delivered a stern message at the two-day seventh Central Symposium on Tibet Work, in Beijing, on Saturday by emphasising "it is necessary to… extensively mobilise the masses [Tibetans] to participate in the struggle against separatism and form an impregnable wall for maintaining stability", the People's Liberation Army Ground Force (PLAGF) intruded into the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) south of Pangong Lake.
In a statement issued on Monday, the army confirmed the PLA intrusion: "On the night of 29/30 August, PLA troops violated the previous consensus arrived at during military and diplomatic engagements during the ongoing stand-off in Eastern Ladakh and carried out provocative military movements to change the status quo." Although army spokesperson Colonel Aman Anand said that the army thwarted "Chinese intentions to unilaterally change facts on ground", conflicting reports have been emanating regarding the nature of the incident.
The army neither elaborated the exact areas of intrusion by the PLAGF nor the way it repelled the Chinese troops. However, it appears from a closer reading of the situation that the PLA has occupied a mountain called Helmet Top and a nearby feature called 'Black Top'.
The Indian response was undoubtedly quick and swift, but the latest PLA aggression is a natural corollary to the intelligence failure regarding Chinese intentions following the aggressive posturing along the LAC in eastern Ladakh in April-end; the government's denial about PLA incursions in the following months with prime minister asserting not an inch of India's land had been occupied; and the disengagement talks with Beijing, which resulted in India losing further territory with the creation of buffer zones at the points of ingress.
China's main objective is to shift the LAC westwards and the Saturday night incursion is another attempt to achieve it after the May-June transgressions. The PLA has been continuously nibbling away at Indian territory along the LAC for years. The more China shifts the LAC to the west, the easier it becomes to target Leh.
Occupying the southern bank of Pangong Lake has a very strategic and military significance for China. The area provides access to Ladakh and the important mountain pass on the south-eastern approach to Chushul Valley, called Rezang La. The mountain pass, with an average height of 16,000 feet, was the site of the famous battle between 120 daredevils of Charlie Company of 13 Kumaon, led by Major Shaitan Singh, PVC, and thousands of PLA troops on 18 November, 1962.
The flatness of the southern bank of Pangong Tso, compared to the north, makes it all the more militarily important to both India and China. Beijing had already deployed more troops on the southern bank. Any further capture of land and deployment of PLA troops would prove to be extremely dangerous for India with China being able to target the strategically significant Darbuk–Shyok–Daulat Beg Oldi Road, and Chushul, which was the flashpoint of Chinese offensive in 1962.
The occupation of Fingers 4-8 — mountains jutting into the lake — in the northern bank by the PLA and the further occupation of Indian territory in the southern bank would give a tactical military advantage to Beijing, in case, of any large-scale confrontation with New Delhi.
Another Chinese objective in occupying Indian territory in the southern bank of the lake is a gap west of Spangur Lake, which is to the west of Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). Like the Fingers, there are broken mountains that jut to the south of this lake with a nearly two-kilometre-wide gap knows as Spangur Gap, which joins the Chushul plateau. The PLA had established a camp in Spangur area in 1959 and overcame four Indian posts in November 1962, according to the book India's Quest for Security: Defence Policies, 1947-1965, written by Lorne J Kavic.
Currently, the government has no option to reclaim the territory lost to China in May and June; it has suffered a serious setback in the perception war it waged through the media. The PLA had never agreed to withdraw from Pangong Tso and Depsang Plains despite repeated government claims of mutually agreeable points and consensus reached at the commander-level talks — the Saturday night Chinese intrusion into the southern bank of the lake clearly proves it.
The only option left for India is to occupy the strategic heights on its side of the LAC before China attempts further transgressions. Before the Ladakh crisis jolted the government, the Army had been merely patrolling the LAC for years. Now, New Delhi needs a comprehensive joint strategy between all the wings of the armed forces, in case, of a massive confrontation with China, and occupation of strategic areas from where the PLA could attempt incursions.
The Chinese Western Theatre Command, which oversees the Tibet Military Command, has been battle-ready for years with the sole aim of countering India. Around 200,000 PLA troops in TAR are completely acclimatised to the freezing temperatures and have sufficient food and water to last them during a war with India. The PLAGF and the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) have been conducting drills in synergy in TAR for the last several years. According to Chinese military experts, the drills show how the PLA has synergised the PLAGF and the PLAAF and can rush in troops from other Commands during war.
Another challenge for India are the PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) and PLA Rocket Force (PLARF). The PLASSF, the cyber, space and electromagnetic warfare branch, was established by Xi during the first wave of military reforms in 2015. India lacks such an integrated force than can paralyse our banks, government institutes, power and communication grids, military command-and-control centres and destroy Indian satellites.
The PLARF is considered the most lethal missile force in the world. According to United States Indo-Pacific Command’s former Commander Admiral Harry Harris, China has the largest and the most diverse arsenal of ballistic and cruise missiles.
Any large-scale military confrontation with China will be India's mistake, home as it is to the third-largest number of COVID-19 cases and the largest daily spike in new infections in the world, and a ravaged economy. India's only option for the moment is to hold onto its areas along the LAC.
As Xi once said, "We do not want to introduce trouble, but we are not afraid to get involved in trouble." India should aim to not let China introduce trouble because it cannot afford to get involved in trouble.
Views expressed are personal
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