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China Started Beefing up Military Infrastructure Near Ladakh After Dilution of Article 370

Long-term analysis of satellite imagery along the Line of Actual Control shows additional Chinese pressure on India, said geospatial intelligence expert Chris Biggers.

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New Delhi: China may have started preparations for building infrastructure to beef up forces at Ladakh that led to the continuing military stand-off with India as early as August 2019, a top global expert pronounced based on long-term analysis of satellite imagery along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

In an interview with Sushant Singh for The India Cable, Chris Biggers, the director of mission applications at the radio frequency (RF) geospatial intelligence firm HawkEye 360, also noted that despite official disengagement at the friction points of Galwan, Gogra and Pangong Tso, Chinese forces continued to remain “near the border at their previous turnaround and throughout the Galwan valley and east of Kongka La”.

Since May 2020, India and China have continued to be engaged in a tense military stand-off at multiple points in eastern Ladakh along the LAC. India has claimed that China amassed military manpower and equipment near the border in violation of border agreements, which sparked off several clashes when the Indian military was not allowed on its regular patrols by Chinese soldiers.

The most serious clash took place in June 2020 at Galwan valley, which left 20 Indian soldiers dead. At least four Chinese soldiers were killed, according to official Chinese statements.

Since then, there have been multiple rounds of diplomatic and military negotiations, which have led to disengagement at several points. However, the key area that remains intractable is the Depsang plains, where the Chinese have refused to start talking about disengagement.

Biggers, who was previously an intelligence officer with the US National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, said that there was “visible asymmetry” between the Indian and Chinese forces and the speed with which they appeared at the border “was instructive”.

“Our review of available commercial collection suggests that some of these differences, particularly with regard to China, may be attributed to advanced planning. For example, we saw the PLA Ground Force stage 143 pieces of armour under tarps at Shahidula (Xaidulla in Xinjiang, north of the Karakoram Pass) in late 2019, with most departing by late May 2020,” he said.

He noted that other images show that the Chinese had started to make preparations from mid-2019. “In further support of the advanced planning thesis, medium resolution imagery has also suggested that China broke ground on much of the military-related infrastructure near the border in August 2019 (or shortly thereafter). This lends weight to speculation that India’s Article 370 decision may have sparked the standoff, which would subsequently require a different defensive posture against India,” Bigger said.

In August 2019, India diluted Article 370 of the Indian constitution to remove the autonomous nature of Jammu and Kashmir and bifurcated the state into two union territories. During parliament proceedings, Indian home minister Amit Shah stated that he was “willing to die” for Kashmir, which he clarified in the house, includes Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) and Aksai China. These two regions are currently under the control of Pakistan and China respectively.

Following the dilution of Article 370, China lodged a protest that carving off Ladakh into a separate union territory was “unacceptable” and would directly impede its sovereignty. 

Biggers underlined that the theory that China’s projections into eastern Ladakh were a result of Article 370 was still difficult to confirm entirely. “However, statements made by Chinese officials throughout the standoff continued to emphasise the protection of China’s territorial sovereignty, which it claimed was violated by the Article 370 revocation,” he told The India Cable.

Asked about the success of the disengagement at Kailash range, Pangong Tso and Gogra, Biggers said that there were “mixed results, particularly when looking at Pangong Tso and the surrounding areas”.

He noted that there were approximately 100 kilometres between the Indian and Chinese forces in that area, but there continued to be People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Ground Forces in forward points of Sirjap, Khurnak Fort and Nyagzu.

“The regional infrastructure in place also means the PLA Ground Force could quickly return to areas that it previously occupied. Moreover, while the Quad met in March we also saw additional Chinese ground elements arrive at Rutog with over a division’s worth of equipment visible in imagery,” he said.

He noted that satellite imagery showed that workers erected and reconfigured shelters to cover equipment near Rutog’s two new garrisons and prefab housing area, which included that PLA Ground Force elements would remain there throughout the winter.

“There is also new activity to the northeast near the G219-S520 junction we’ve been closely monitoring in addition to regional road improvements and new heliport construction at Duoma (northeast of Rutog)”, Biggers said.

India and China agreed to disengage at Gogra this year, but Biggers added that its success was even more limited than at Pangong Tso.

“While PLA [Ground Forces] deployed near Patrol Point 17 had relocated by July 2020, an Indian and Chinese forward camp remained as per agreements. Those elements finally disengaged in August 2021, but Chinese forces have remained near the border at their previous turnaround and throughout the Galwan valley and east of Kongka La,” said Biggers, who had previously also been the defence and intelligence applications lead for Planet Labs.

He added that in all areas, the Chinese military had brought pre-fab shelters, solar arrays and had improved lines of communication “to maintain their presence indefinitely, should they so choose”.

At Depsang plains, Biggers spoke about small Chinese deployments at the Y-Nalla junction, which inhibited the Indian military’s movement throughout the area.

Planet imagery acquired 1NOV2021 continued to show a PLAGF presence blocking IA patrols near the Raki Nala Y-junction. Photo: The India Cable

“Considering the larger Indian presence at the two posts near Burtse – of which China is likely aware – the obstructing Chinese presence may act as a type of tripwire. In other words, the Indian Army could quickly overrun the PLAGF positions and re-establish patrols, but to do so would likely provoke a military response from elements deployed near Tienwendian – an unwelcome escalation after Galwan and Rezang La,” he explained.

He noted that while the Indian Army had reinforced its forces in several locations around Qizil Langer and Daulat Beg Oldi, “it would likely be unable to repel a Chinese offensive, if an escalation were to become uncontrollable”.

Biggers continued to reiterate that all the observations show that the Chinese are not going anywhere soon. “Bottom line: China has made preparations to keep forces near Depsang during the winter”.

He analysed that the long-term Chinese presence would have the “intended effect of providing the PLA [Ground Forces] experience that training alone cannot offer, while also making India expend more resources to monitor and potentially defend the border”.

“In some respects, it benefits China to keep the crisis brewing as long-term occupation of the border areas helps it operationalise its new Theatre Commands and Joint Logistics Support Force (JLSF), providing a real-world scenario in an expeditionary setting. Since it was established in 2016, the JLSF has held only one significant exercise of its own, the Joint Logistics 2018-B, focusing on long-distance manoeuvres,” said Biggers.

The Chinese military’s actions in eastern Ladakh were part of its evolution of an “Active Defence” posture, defined as a focus on “rapid mobility and concentrating offensive capability to destroy an adversary’s retaliatory capacity”.

“With the current infrastructure and ongoing improvements in the region, China has ensured that it can move forces quickly to respond to any perceived threat posed by India. For example, when India took to the ridges at Rezang La, which in some respects helped shift the centre of gravity to Chushul, we saw self-propelled howitzers and other elements redeploy from the Galwan Valley and Kongka La areas,” Biggers said.

He also confirmed statements made by the Eastern Army Commander Lt General Manoj Pande that the Chinese forces have increased presence in “operational depth” areas along the Arunachal border. 

“Our monitoring shows a PLA [Ground Forces] armour presence at Gyantse and armour elements remaining deployed near Gamba. HawkEye 360 began detecting radio frequency activity at Gamba in August 2020 when we first discovered a new deployment east of the area’s field garrison. This shift in the disposition of forces is likely one of many reasons why the Indian Army has been rethinking a possible light tank acquisition and raising an additional armour brigade for the sector,” said Biggers.

In other areas, China has deployed in total four hardened artillery positions near the Chumbi valley and Doklam plateau to cover the Indian border area and nearby major mountain passes to counter any future Indian intervention like in 2017.

“Additionally, a possible multiple launch rocket system battery has been identified and remains deployed east of Sikkim. Given the proximity of these developments to the Siliguri corridor, all of the above are likely being weighed by New Delhi,” he said.