India sees prolonged face-off in Pongong lake, Debsang plains along China border

Photo: Pongong Tso, a boomerang shaped lake in Ladakh on India-China Line of Actual Control

By N. C. Bipindra

New Delhi: India has assessed that it could witness a prolonged conflict at two key locations along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China in Ladakh, where the two nations’ militaries have been in a face-off for over 50 days now.

The military tussle could continue up to the winter months, when temperatures dip up to minus 55 degree Celsius and make it difficult to stay put in temporary military tents along the LAC, according to senior Indian Army officers with direct knowledge of the present situation in Ladakh. They asked not to be named as they are not authorised to speak to the media on the matter.

The most difficult sectors of Ladakh for disengagement of troopers in the current stand-off would be the Pangong Tso and the Debsang plains, where India sees a mobilisation of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troopers that could pose a threat to the Indian intentions to maintain status quo of the LAC and its strategic interests.

The challenge at the Pongong Tso was the serious differences in perception between India and China over where the LAC lies. While China considers Finger 4 out of the eight such undulating hilly terrain jutting out into boomerang shaped Pongong lake on the north banks as its perceived LAC, India has historical proof to show that Finger 8 is where the LAC lies.

Both sides have been frequently patrolling the territory between Finger 4 and Finger 8, according to their perceived LAC, but never put up any permanent or temporary structures in the area till now.

This has now turned out to be a reason for conflict in the current face-off, as the Chinese PLA troopers have put up temporary structures for their stay atop the ridge at Finger 4, looking down directly at the locations on the Indian side of the LAC, where India has its permanent facilities for soldiers to stay.

This change in status quo in the Finger area of Pongong Tso has been disturbing for the Indian side. It is here at Pongong Tso that India may have to work out a solution and it will take much time to do so, as the demobilisation will be slow there, the officers, cited earlier, said.

India wants a full pull back by the Chinese troopers from their present temporary positions at Finger 4 to their permanent positions beyond Finger 8 on the East.

The Chinese are taking their sweet time to do so, despite the second Corps Commanders’ meeting on June 22, which was held in “a positive, cordial and cooperative” atmosphere and when it was agreed that disengagement would take place. The meeting took place after the Indian side stood ground against the violent attacks by the Chinese soldiers at Galwan Valley on June 15.

At Debsang, India is staring at a more serious strategic threat from China, the officers said. It is here that the disengagement between the Indian and Chinese armies could take more months than in other conflict spots in Ladakh.

China, according to the officers, has mobilised tanks, artillery guns and air elements such as attack and logistics helicopters along with infantry soldiers up to two divisions size of around 20,000 troopers. India is mirroring this Chinese mobilisation on its side of the LAC, they said.

This mobilisation is just about 25 km southeast of India’s strategically and tactically important air strip at the Daulat Beg Oldi at 16,000 feet altitude, which was revived by the Indian Air Force in 2008 after 47 years of it lying disused.

Daulat Beg Oldi is just about 20 km South of the Karakoram Pass, which is the tri-junction of India, Pakistan-occupied Gilgit-Baltistan and China-held Xinjiang. It is a key Indian military asset for the defence of this strategically important Indian territory.

The Chinese mobilisation at Depsang could mean a serious threat to cut off India’s land access to the Daulat Beg Oldi and the Karakoram Pass, apart from the Saltoro ridge and the Siachen Glacier, is very real.

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