New Delhi: Three days after Indian and Chinese military commanders met on Saturday at Chushul, in Ladakh, to discuss the crisis caused by the occupation by thousands of Chinese soldiers of territory traditionally patrolled by both armies, top army sources in India sought to portray a rapidly improving situation.
Claiming that both sides – the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Indian Army – have “retreated a bit” after the Saturday meeting, the army sources revealed that another Sino-Indian meeting would be held on Wednesday at a more junior level.
However, sources on the ground paint a far bleaker picture of Chinese intransigence along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). They say that during the talks, the PLA interlocutors flatly rejected the Indian demand for Chinese troops to withdraw from areas they occupied in May and restore the status quo that prevailed in April.
In fact, during the military-to-military dialogue on Saturday, China refused to even discuss its intrusions into the Galwan River valley, instead claiming ownership over the entire area.
Underlining these sharp divergences between the Indian and Chinese positions, no joint statement was released after Lieutenant General Harinder Singh, the Leh corps commander, met PLA Major General Liu Lin, who heads the South Xinjiang Military Region in a bid to defuse the confrontation.
Nor did New Delhi release any details about the military discussions. Only on Tuesday, after being sharply criticised by opposition members, including Rahul Gandhi of the Congress Party, did “top army sources” present the media with the military’s version of events.
According to their version, the Indian and Chinese corps commanders met one-on-one for almost three hours before engaging further during delegate-level talks. The two sides “mutually agreed and identified five locations of conflicts” between PLA and Indian troops. These include Patrolling Point 14 (PP14), PP15, PP17, the north bank of Pangong Tso Lake and Chushul.
The fact that these conflict locations make no mention of the Galwan River valley lends credence to the argument that the sector did not feature on the discussion agenda.
Galwan River valley
During the talks, the PLA indicated they were taking control of the Galwan River valley, which has traditionally been a peaceful sector where China adhered to a claim line. Now PLA negotiators have asserted ownership of the entire Galwan Valley, claiming that China had controlled the hilltops astride the Galwan River for “as long as they could remember.”
The PLA alleged that the one-kilometre-long track that India had built from the Shyok-Galwan river junction, heading eastwards along the Galwan River, was an encroachment on Chinese territory. They alleged that India was developing this track into a metal (black-topped) road.
The Indian army representatives countered that the Chinese had constructed a metal road right to where the LAC had existed up till May – that is five kilometres from where the Galwan flows into the Shyok river – and that the road would soon cross the LAC. The Chinese responded that the Galwan Valley was their area and it was legitimate for them to build a road in it.
Indian negotiators also objected strongly to PLA troops deploying in the close vicinity of India’s Gogra post. Sources say the PLA did not offer a cogent response.
Nor was there a cogent PLA response to Indian allegations that the Chinese were constructing a road on India’s side of the LAC between Hot Springs and Gogra.
Pangong Tso area
Responding to Indian charges of Chinese intrusions onto the Pangong Tso north bank, the PLA negotiators claimed they had “acted rightfully” in constructing a metalled road up to Finger 4, and preparing defensive positions in that disputed area.
Prior to May, the Indian army regularly patrolled till their perceived LAC at Finger 8, eight kilometres east of Finger 4. However, since May 5, when thousands of PLA troops blocked and savagely beat up outnumbered Indian troops in that area, Indian patrols are unable to go beyond Finger 4, which the Chinese now claim is the LAC.
The Chinese military officials accepted that the aggression with which PLA soldiers attacked Indian troops at the Pangong Tso in mid-May “was not in the right spirit,” but said it was a reaction to Indian patrols crossing the PLA’s version of the LAC.
The Indian army also brought up the need to reduce forward deployments of PLA soldiers, armoured vehicles and artillery guns. The Chinese responded they would have to refer the matter to their superiors.
Gains and losses
Army sources apprehend the PLA has gained strategically in the Galwan Valley, where they now occupy positions overlooking the strategic Darbuk-Shyok-Daulet Beg Oldi (DSDBO) road to Depsang, at the base of the Karakoram Pass.
The Chinese have also gained strategically by isolating the Depsang area, as a consequence of dominating the DSDBO road. There is currently a large Chinese armour build up opposite Depsang, which is raising apprehensions of surprise ingress in that sector by the PLA.
Chinese gains in the Pangong Tso area, however, are being seen as tactical, even though the levels of violence the PLA displayed there is worrisome.
The other PLA activities at Naku La (Sikkim) and at Harsil and Lipu Lekh (Uttarakhand) are being viewed as “red herrings”, aimed at tying down Indian troops rather than serving any larger strategic objectives.
The army is also closely watching the long border between Arunachal Pradesh and Tibet, which is called the McMahon Line. This has been entirely quiet so far, with no Chinese activity in this area.
On Tuesday, Indian army sources provided a military-political perspective to the on-going PLA intrusions. “The core issue is the undecided LAC. Until that is solved, these episodes and issues will continue to happen,” they stated.
Also to blame, according to the army sources, was the PLA’s militarisation of the border areas. “China has deployed fighter bombers, rocket forces, air defence radars, jammers, etcetera. India has also deployed all its major assets along the LAC… just a few kilometres away from the frontline. India will continue to have a major build up until China withdraws the build up [it has] done there,” they said.