Chinese Pullback at Galwan Comes at a Cost, Indian Retreat Shifts LAC to its Disadvantage

In essence, the Indian Army has agreed not to patrol or occupy areas that China had accepted as Indian all these years, and which lie outside China's traditional claim line.

Chandigarh: The Chinese appear to have successfully managed to dominate the agenda in the military disengagement currently underway with India, along the disputed line of actual control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh, by quietly realigning boundaries to their tactical advantage.

The disengagement protocol agreed on June 30 between the two Indian Army and PLA commanders, for instance, has now effectively made the LAC traverse the Y-nullah junction – which lies 1 km inside the Indian side of the actual LAC and one which its army had patrolled for decades with Chinese concurrence and acceptance.

The Y-nullah junction is the point where the Galwan river takes a sharp bend before flowing further down to merge with the Shyok river. The PLA, for its part, refers to this area as the ‘Galwan  estuary’ (though the phrase has also been understood to mean the confluence of the Galwan and Shyok rivers) and made a claim to it ever since the recent crisis erupted – including a public statement to this effect by its defence ministry after the violent clash of June 15.

Map of Aksai Chin with the LAC and Chinese claim lines. Image: The Wire

China’s official claim line based on map coordinates it shared with India in 1960 – and which mirrors the LAC for the most part – passes to the east of this area but analysts believe there is now a concerted effort by the Chinese side to slowly push this line westward. The aim: to reinforce control over Aksai Chin, the eastern portion of Ladakh that it occupies and through which its highway, G 219, connects Xinjiang in the west with Tibet.

Now, after the third round of pullback talks at Chushul between India’s Lieutenant General Harinder Singh and the PLA’s Major General Liu Lin, this Y-junction area adjoining Patrolling Point (PP) 14 – site of the June 15 clash – has inexplicably been rendered a ‘buffer zone’ along the LAC, instead of being on Indian side of the line itself and thus an area over which India has full freedom.

As first reported by Ajai Shukla in the Business Standard, both armies, according to the negotiated terms, will now be permitted to erect only one make shift tented post, each manned by no more than 30 soldiers each located some 1.8km from Y-junction.

A similar, second post, some 1km behind the first would be permitted to each side with 50 army personnel respectively, making it a total distance of some 3km from Y-junction. Further away, however, behind the second encampment, troops from both armies can gather unrestrictedly.

Consequent upon these new alignments, some 3 km of territory perceived for years to be under Indian control, has de facto now become ‘no man’s land’. And even though India had reiterated its control over this area, it has weakened its own claims by agreeing eventually to the new arrangement. Indirectly, this reinforces putative Chinese claims on the ground over the entire Galwan Valley, a claim India has officially challenged.

Also read: The Year of Living Dangerously for India and China

Official sources also maintain that in this sleight of territorial jugglery favouring China, Y-junction, and not the original LAC, is the area from where the distance with regard to PP14 is calculated, thereby altering future patrolling patterns to the PLA’s advantage.

This concession, reportedly secured at China’s insistence despite India’s objections, in effect further means that the Indian Army which earlier sent patrols to PP14 at the Galwan River will, under the revised alignments, now have to maintain an effective distance of some 3 km from it.

Close up satellite image of the Y-bend in the Galwan River, site of the recent clash between Indian and Chinese soldiers on June 15, 2020. The Line of Actual Control, shown in red, runs a little west of the Chinese claim line of 1960, shown in orange. But both lines show the area where the clash occurred, and the Galwan Valley as unambiguously on the Indian side. Image: The Wire/Google Earth

Conversely, since the actual LAC lies one kilometre to the east of the Y-junction, the PLA will need to come just 400 mts from the point, further buttressing its territorial claims and giving it the tactical advantage it earlier lacked.  Incidentally, in this region, as can be seen from the map coordinates on the satellite image above, China’s official claim is even further away from Y-junction.

In addition, as Ajai Shukla as reported and this reporter has confirmed, no agreement has been arrived at for the PLA to pull back from PP15, which is south of Galwan, of from Hot Springs area, where troops from both armies continue to block each other. Furthermore, the PLA has built a road over the past few weeks adjoining PP15 into territory claimed by India, in addition to intruding some 2-3km into the Hot Springs area near the Gogra Heights mountain area where the military deadlock too endures.

Also read: India, China Talk of Border Disengagement ‘At the Earliest’, But Key Differences Remain

There is also no agreement on any pullback in the Pangong Tso lake region, where PLA troops intruded across the LAC, intruding some 8km into Indian territory from mountain spurs Finger 4 to Finger 8 across an 8km frontage.

Officers familiar with the region said the newly negotiated arrangement gives the PLA the tactical advantage to intrude at a time-and location- of its own choosing into Indian territory, whilst giving the impression of reasonableness and accommodation by pulling back for the moment.

“It’s a smart tactical move by the PLA that is aimed at a larger strategic game plan that will unfold at a later stage” said military analyst Major General A.P. Singh (retd) who has served along the LAC.

For India, he added, it will only mean turning the LAC into a heavily forfeited and personnel intensive frontier, similar to the 747 km long Line of Control with Pakistan, only more extended and with far less infrastructure, but at enormous cost.

Senior army officers are agreed that such a move would result in exponentially higher revenue expenditure, not only to only equip soldiers for temperatures averaging minus 35 to 40 degrees Celsius for nearly six months each year, till April, but also to develop infrastructure and stockpile food and fuel to sustain them.

Also read: A Guide to What’s Happened in East Ladakh, and the Way Ahead for India and China

Such a move would also put paid to plans announced by Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat to reduce the number of army personnel, to effect savings in the forces’ bloated salary bill that amount to nearly 70% or Rs 102,523 lakh crore of its overall annual revenue budget of Rs 146,940 lakh crore.

Before the Kargil war, the army had planned on reducing its numbers from 12 lakhs by around 50,000, but the compulsions of physically manning the LoC thereafter only resulted in troop numbers rising. Correspondingly, so did the outflow in salaries.

In turn, this could hinder the army’s long-deferred modernisation in times of dire economic stress.

In 2018 then army Vice Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Sarath Chand summed up the force’s equipment woes when he told the parliamentary defence committee that 68% of its in-service platforms were in the ‘vintage’ category, compared with 24% considered ‘current’ and just 8% were regarded as ‘state of the art’.

He claimed that inadequate funding was responsible. adding that “marginal” budgetary hikes had “dashed hopes” of upgrading the force, as they were barely enough to meet inflation and taxes.

In the two years since, the army’s financial woes have only worsened, and the present PLA threat only portends beggaring it even more.