Understanding the Depsang Imbroglio

The 11th round of India-China military talks to diffuse tension in Eastern Ladakh is likely to be held soon. Ever since, the successful disengagement of troops from the Lake Area and the Kailash Range in February this year a stalemate exists as far as further disengagement is concerned from the areas of Hot Springs, Gogra, Demchok and stopping of Indian patrols in Depsang. Immediately after the disengagement was completed the 10th round of talks was held between the military commanders of the two nations but it failed to arrive at any consensus as far as further disengagement from the remaining areas was concerned though the talks were dubbed as “constructive” and both sides hoped for a fruitful outcome. A joint statement issued by the two countries after the talks positively appraised the disengagement from Lake Area terming it a significant step that would provide a good basis for resolution of other remaining issues along the LAC in Western Sector.

The disengagement from the Depsang plains is believed to be the bone of contention since it is not directly related to the last year’s aggression of the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) in Galwan, Hot Springs, Gogra and Fingers Area in Pangong Tso Lake and is a legacy of the past. Apart from the military commander level talks, hectic diplomatic parleys to diffuse the situation and restore normalcy have also continued with both sides committing to “maintaining peace and tranquility and provide conditions for the progress of bilateral relations.”

Not only that the foreign ministers of the two countries had a telephonic talk as well in the last week of February to review the situation and asserted on restoration of peace and tranquility including establishment of a hotline to remain in touch. The Indian Foreign Minister had insisted on “early resolution of remaining issues along the LAC and disengagement at all friction points.” This was followed by a virtual meeting of Working Mechanism of Consultation and Coordination on India China Border Affairs (WMCC) in the last week of March. It was decided in the meeting to hold 11th round of talks between the Corps Commanders as early as possible “to further ease the situation on the ground and jointly safeguard the hard-won peace and stability in the border areas.” All eyes are now set on the 11th round and whether it would resolve the Depsang imbroglio? Why are the Chinese so sensitive to this area?

The Depsang plains are sandwiched between the Aksai Chin and Siachen Glacier. Located at the heights of 16-17000 feet above sea level the area provides good mobility to the armoured vehicles. Karakoram Pass and Sasser Law Pass, both strategically important to India located within its territory, are located on its flanks. Much of these plains, unknown to us, have been under Chinese control since mid-1950s. Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO) is also located adjacent to the plains. In 1962, the Chinese occupied much of the Depsang plains west of DBO with India left with a small bulge. The new road built by us to connect DBO with Shyok and beyond is under observation of the Chinese and remains vulnerable to its artillery fire. The area is strategically important because China and Pakistan can jointly threaten India with a pincer movement in a strategic collusion and cut-off the vital area from rest of the Ladakh. Conversely, India can threaten Aksai Chin and China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) though build up for any large-scale offensive would pose serious challenges.

Apart from the varying perception of the LAC, another peculiar factor in the area is the Limit of Patrol (LOP) which is in depth from the LAC. India and China differ on the alignment of LOP as well. The Chinese perception of LOP is almost 20 km beyond our perception inside our territory. The tensions in this area are not recent. The Chinese had intruded in the area in 2013, 2015 during the visit of Xi Jinping and during 2017 Doklam crisis.

The crux of the problem lies in both sides denying each other access to the Patrolling Points (PPs) located on the LOP. Earlier Indian patrols had been patrolling up to PP 11, 12, 12A and 13 and had not moved beyond that till the perceived LAC. But lately, the PLA has been preventing Indian troops from even patrolling till these PPs and the phenomenon has become more pronounced after the Doklam stand-off. Unlike, the Chinese incursions in the Fingers Area (between Finger 4-8), the Chinese have not physically moved into the area. This should set at rest the shouting brigade which had claimed that the Chinese have occupied the Depsang plains along with the incursions in other areas.

The Indian patrols can move in vehicles only up to an area called “Bottleneck” beyond which the movement is on foot. A kilo-meter or so beyond the bottleneck is “Y-Junction” where the route bifurcates with one fork leading to PP10 to 12 and the other fork leading to PP13. When Indian patrols approach Y-Junction, the PLA troops come in vehicles from a nearby post and stop them from going further up to the LOP. In a quid pro quo, the Indian troops prevent the PLA troops to go ahead of the bottleneck area to their perceived LOP.

To ward off any threat in the area, India has built up a strong force in the area including armoured vehicles. The logistics sustenance of such a large force and to keep the armoured   fleet functional in extreme cold weather is a herculean task. Therefore, the two sides need to resolve differences in the area that can lead to confidence building and resumption of patrolling activities. Indian army would also need to review its plan to decide the optimum force level needed to cater for any surprise move by the Chinese.

It is reliably learnt that Indian troops are still in possession of a feature in the Lake area that can prove as a ‘trump card” for hard bargaining with the Chinese to secure our interests in the Depsang plains.

(The writer is a Jammu based veteran, political commentator, columnist, security and strategic analyst. The views expressed are entirely personal. )


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