FREEZE FRAME Indian and Chinese troops and tanks disengage from the banks of the Pangong lake area in eastern Ladakh, Feb. 16, 2021
Like gigantic grey concrete aircraft carriers standing out against a dun-colored Tibetan plateau, Beijing’s big military aviation build-up is unfolding in clear view of imaging satellites. Satellite photos show a frenetic pace of construction, unrivaled in recent years. New airfields are being built and old ones are expanded with new taxi tracks, aprons, and longer runways. Fighter jets are being pushed under concrete pens with three-foot-thick walls that can withstand direct hits from missiles and air-dropped precision bombs. Launchpads around the bases bristle with HQ-9 long-range missiles which can shoot down aircraft over 100 km away. Concrete has been trucked into various military sites across the plateau since May (the building season is May-October in the heights as concrete does not set easily in winter), and one government source mentions having counted up to 800 trucks working at various sites across the plateau. China is building three new airports at Tashkurgan in Xinjiang and Tingri and Damxung in Tibet and expanding and upgrading infrastructure at the existing airbases in Kashgar, Hotan, Ngari-Gunsa, Lhasa, and Bangda. Beijing’s 14th five-year plan (2021-25), approved in March this year, included the construction of 20 multi-purpose airfields in Tibet. China is preparing for war or, at the very least, a new round of border belligerence.
In May 2020, after nearly four years of infrastructure-building and military drills at high altitudes, the PLA (People’s Liberation Army of China) rushed two divisions along the 840-km Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh. The PLA’s forward move was its most blatant attempt to alter the LAC since the 1962 IndiaChina border war and destroyed over three decades of carefully constructed confidence-building measures. The Indian army, surprised by what it believed were PLA divisions conducting routine maneuvers, responded by rushing two infantry divisions (around 15,000 soldiers each) towards the LAC and activating its forces along the entire 3,488-km-long boundary. The face-off, what New Delhi now recognizes to be military coercion, led to a violent scuffle in the Galway Valley on June 15 last year—killing 20 Indian soldiers and four on the Chinese side— the largest loss of life since the 1967 Nathu La and Cho La clashes.
On February 16, after a nine-month standoff, both sides pulled back troops, tanks, and artillery pieces to the north bank of the Pangong Tso and plains south of the lake where the Indian army had in August 2020 occupied heights overlooking the Chinese garrison of Moldo. The pullback, by nearly two kilometers in that one location, has not resulted in de-escalation or the complete withdrawal of troops out of eastern Ladakh. The Indian army wants the PLA to withdraw first because it feels the Chinese can reach the LAC far quicker than they can. Hence, close to 200,000 soldiers are now deployed along both sides of the LAC.
India and China are eyeballing each other at three places—the Hot Springs, Gogra, and the Depsang Plains. Ladakh is a largely barren high-altitude desert but of enormous strategic significance to both sides. The Chinese incursion points are along the vital DSDBO road which connects Leh with the northernmost edge of Indian territory—guarded by the Daulat Beg Oldie military post. Aksai Chin, claimed by India but held by China since the 1962 war, links Xinjiang with Tibet.
These standoffs are likely to figure in the 12th round of the Corps Commander-level talks to be held sometime in August. Nearly two-thirds of the Depsang plateau is being controlled by the PLA who have denied Indian soldiers patrolling access to five patrol points on the LAC since last year.
The Indian army, in a July 15 media communique, denied media reports that there were clashes between the army and the PLA after the February disengagement. It said that ‘both sides have continued with negotiations to resolve the balance issues, and regular patrolling in respective areas continues’, and that the situation on the ground continues as before. PLA activities, including turnover of troops, continue to be monitored by the Indian army.
Chinese Weiqi moves are being matched by Indian chaturanga counter-moves as the two Asian heavyweights engage in a high-altitude board game. Tanks, troops, missiles, and fighter jets are the pieces in the game.
The Indian army, which once extensively planned and prepared for warfare on the plains of Punjab and the sandy wastes of the Thar desert, is now reorienting itself to fight along a second front—the high-altitude deserts of the world’s toughest battlefield. The official term for this move towards the north is ‘rebalancing’. Before 2021, nine of the army’s 13.5 corps faced Pakistan while four-and-a-half faced China (each corps has two divisions each with 15,000 soldiers). Now the ratio has changed to eight corps facing Pakistan and six China. Close to 50,000 fresh troops have been moved all along the LAC.
THE MOST SIGNIFICANT MOVE has been the Mathura-based 1 Corps, a strike corps aimed at Pakistan’s heartland across the Cholistan desert, which has now been wheeled around and directed northwards, towards Chinese-occupied Aksai Chin. A Rashtriya Rifles ‘force headquarters’, a division-sized force of around 15,000 meant to fight insurgency, has been dislodged from Jammu and Kashmir and moved to Ladakh. The Panagarh-based Mountain Strike Corps, whose raising was halted at a single infantry division over cost considerations in 2016, has been reinforced with a second division in Ranchi; the corps is now exclusively focused in the eastern sector.
The LAC has been ‘hardened’, a military term meant to indicate that defences are manned, ammunition and firepower in place, troops acclimatized to fight at high altitude, and the air force kept on the alert. Pre-2020, there was just one infantry division in Ladakh. There are now four divisions there. The Leh-based 14 Corps has begun the process of winter stocking—stockpiling food and fuel for the winter which sets in October—to cater to this expanded garrison.
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