A border move that will only bolster China
- The attempt to delink the strategically important area of Depsang from the ongoing Ladakh border crisis is worrying.
A tragic background
- After the 1962 Sino-India War was over, the Indian Army was confronted with the problem of bodies of around 190 Indian soldiers lying in areas around 8 kilometres to 16 kilometres inside the Chinese 1960 claim line in Ladakh.
- Collecting the bodies of the soldiers through mutual consent is an established military practice, and the Indian Red Cross wrote to its Chinese counterpart in April 1963.
- The Chinese turned down the request, stating that the bodies had been properly buried, and there was no need to send any Indian parties into disputed areas.
- As most Indian soldiers were to be cremated, not buried, the issue was again taken up with the Chinese.
- In August, Chinese agreed to carry out the cremation and hand over the ashes to the Indian Red Cross.
- When Indian Red Cross requested that Indian representatives be present during the ceremony, Chinese canceled the arrangements altogether.
- Chinese Foreign Ministry accused the Indian government of trying to lay claim to these territories through this device.
- Chinese Foreign Ministry insisted that the Indians who died at their posts in Ladakh were ‘invaders’ and not defending their ‘motherland’.
- People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had buried the bodies of five Indian soldiers - wooden posts with the inscriptions in Chinese and English, ‘The Corpses of Indian Invaders’.
- The purpose of the elaborate exercise was to deny any legitimate Indian presence and claim over these areas in future negotiations.
- If Indian soldiers had died defending their motherland, then it was an area in Indian possession and control.
- Its efforts to create facts on the ground to bolster its ‘historical’ claim underline the extent of Chinese enterprise in asserting its territorial claims.
- The Indian Army Chief argued that “out of the five or six friction points (in Ladakh), five have been solved”.
- Friction point - An Indian euphemism for points of Chinese ingress into hitherto India-controlled territory in Ladakh, where this control is exercised by the Army and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP).
- These ‘friction points’ are Depsang, Galwan, Hot Springs, Gogra, North bank of Pangong Tso, Kailash Range and Demchok.
- Only one friction point remains to be resolved - is the Hot Springs or PP15.
- It was ruled out that Depsang is an area to be resolved.
- This attempt to delink the strategically important area of Depsang from the ongoing Ladakh border crisis is worrying.
- It has long-term strategic consequences for India.
- Depsang is an enclave of flat terrain located in an area the Army classifies as Sub-Sector North (SSN), which provides land access to Central Asia through the Karakoram Pass.
- Chinese army has blocked Indian patrols since early 2020 at a place called Y-junction or Bottleneck, denying it access to five PPs: PP10, PP11, PP11A, PP12 and PP13.
- A joint patrol of the ITBP and Army would patrol these five PPs approximately once a month.
- Y-junction is around 18 km on the Indian side of the LAC, even though the Chinese claim line lies another five kilometers further west.
- Satellite imagery from November 2021 confirms Chinese deployments at the Y-junction.
- 2 PLA Ground Force camps with six infantry fighting vehicles split between two positions while a small Indian Army forward camp is stationed 1.2 km west of the Y-junction.
Stand-off in 2013 and patrols
- The Indian forward camp is the new patrol base, with a permanent patrol deployed there, that was created after a 22-day long stand-off at Y-junction in April 2013.
- Since then, it has observed and stopped Chinese patrols from moving further to the Indian side, but a PLA patrol had still managed to get up to around 1.5 km short of Burtse in September 2015.
- Till the current blockade, the Indian side was able to access the 5 patrolling points, asserting Indian control, while the PLA had been denied access to its claim line since the late 2000s.
- That status quo has been disturbed since early 2020.
- Media reports labelled it a ‘legacy issue,’ suggesting that the crisis has continued since April 2013.
- The 2013 stand-off was resolved diplomatically after negotiations led to reversal of an Indian ingress and bunker construction on the Chinese side in Chumar, while the PLA stepped away from the Y-junction.
- Former Ladakh Corps Commander asserting that “patrolling had continued, as planned since the 2013 stand-off” and “to now state that we were not able to reach our LOP since 2013 as PLA was blocking our movement, is pure heresy”.
- A 22-day stand-off in 2013 generated much public and media outrage but a 22-month long blockade of patrolling rights in the same area now has been greeted with silence.
- The Army has always identified Depsang plains as where it finds itself most vulnerable in Ladakh, devising plans to tackle the major Chinese challenge.
- Sub-Sector North (SSN) flat terrain of Depsang, Trig Heights and DBO - which provides direct access to Aksai Chin is suited for mechanized warfare.
- China has multiple roads that provide easy access to the area.
- This leaves SSN highly vulnerable to capture by the PLA, with a few thousands of square kilometres from the Karakoram Pass to Burtse, likely to be lost.
- Nowhere else in Ladakh is the PLA likely to gain so much territory in a single swoop.
- SSN lies to the east of Siachen, located between the Saltoro ridge on the Pakistani border and the Saser ridge close to the Chinese border.
- It is the only place where a physical military collusion can take place between Pakistan and China, and the challenge of a two-front war can become real in the worst-case scenario.
- If India loses this area, it will be nearly impossible to launch a military operation to wrest back Gilgit-Baltistan from Pakistan.
- Depsang is also seen as a viable launchpad for a mechanised force-based military offensive launched by India inside Aksai Chin.
Danger of delinking
- The biggest danger of delinking Depsang from the current border crisis in Ladakh is of corroborating the Chinese argument, which invalidates the rightful Indian claim over a large swathe of territory.
- In sparsely populated areas like Ladakh, with limited forward deployment of troops, the only assertion of territorial claims is by regular patrolling.
- The blockade at Y-junction predates the current stand-off is a ‘legacy issue’ that goes back years.
- The Chinese side can affirm that Indian patrols never had access to this area and thus India has no valid claim on the territory.
- Already living with the disadvantage of being a lesser power, this argument further weakens India’s hand during negotiations in Ladakh.
- India cannot afford to repeat that blunder again and lose its land.
- As was demonstrated by China in the aftermath of the 1962 War, there should be no holding back in painstakingly asserting one’s claims when it comes to safeguarding the territory.
- Denial of truth for domestic political gains, in this case, will certainly be to the detriment of India’s strategic interests.