There are an estimated 1,200-1,500 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers now directly engaged in the almost eyeball-to-eyeball face offs at four to five locations on the northern bank of Pangong Tso (Tso means lake), Demchok and the Galwan Valley region, which are spread across a broad frontage of the unresolved Line of Actual Control (LAC).
“The PLA has also moved some of its border defence regiments closer to the LAC, with at least 5,000 soldiers being diverted towards the border from an exercise being held in the region,” said sources on Monday.
The immediate provocation for the PLA incursions 1-3 km into what India considers to be its territory was to object against the construction of small feeder link roads in the “finger areas” (mountainous spurs) on the northern bank of Pangong Tso and near the Galwan river.
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Some of the intrusions are in areas like the Galwan Valley region, which have not been points of contention in recent years. Some analysts have read the Chinese moves in the context of India’s recent decisions to scrutinize Chinese investments as well as a warning not to be pro-active in supporting calls for an investigation into the Covid-19 origins.
The construction of border roads in the past few years that improve India’s military access to remote points on the LAC, like the 255-km Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie road, which provides access to the Depsang area and Galwan Valley while ending near the Karakoram Pass, have also been a sore point for the Chinese.
Though the Indian Army continues to maintain a studied silence, it has also moved battalions under the Leh-based 3 Infantry Division (a division has 10,000-12,000 soldiers) to their “forward operational alert areas”, with other units replacing them in the “traditional depth areas”, as was earlier reported by TOI.
Sources said there are no signs of any thaw yet in the “high-altitude military stalemate” despite several rounds of “hotline talks” and brigadier-level negotiations at the Chushul-Moldo and Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO)-Tien Wien Dien (TWD) border personnel meeting (BPM) points in eastern Ladakh.
“The decision on how to defuse the situation will have to come from a higher level now, either through unstructured talks or existing bilateral mechanisms between India and China,” said a source.
“The well-coordinated PLA incursions at multiple points, which includes the largely peaceful Galwan Valley region, are obviously part of a larger design with orders coming from the top Chinese military and political hierarchy,” he added.
Bilateral border issues and disputes are discussed in meetings between the two special representatives (national security advisor Ajit Doval and his counterpart Wang Yi last met in Delhi in December 2019) or in the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs (WMCC), which was set up in January 2012.
While no bullets have been fired in anger along the 3,488-km long LAC since 1976, unlike the daily firing duels between India and Pakistan along the 778-km Line of Control, there is always the inherent risk of something going wrong in tense face-offs like the ones currently underway in eastern Ladakh.
Pangong Tso, which has always been contentious, witnessed the violent clash that left several soldiers from both sides badly injured on May 5-6 after PLA blocked Indian patrols and construction of a road beyond the “Finger-2” area.
But the ongoing troop confrontations over 110-km away at “patrolling points 14 and 15” and Gogra post areas in the Galwan Valley region, after PLA incursions into the perceived Indian territory, have raised concerns in the Indian security establishment.
The PLA has pitched 80 to 100 tents as well as brought in several heavy vehicles and earth-moving equipment in the Galwan Valley region. Indian positions in the area, around 500 meters away, have also been suitably reinforced, as was earlier reported by TOI.