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Pangong Tso stands as one of the most perilous moments in the litany of military collisions between India and China. Amid the barren summits and sub-zero temperatures of the Himalayan mountains, Asia’s two largest nations almost came to blows last summer in Ladakh and may yet still.

On February 14, elements of the People’s Liberation Army, deployed from the Southern Xinjiang Military District, began to disengage peacefully from the north and south banks of Pangong Tso lake under the watchful gaze of the Indian Army’s Northern Command. Informed speculation concerning a breakthrough in talks between Indian and Chinese corps commanders had percolated across social media as early as November. However, as with all reporting on the Line of Actual Control (LAC), rumors took the place of facts and the little information available was censored heavily by Beijing and New Delhi. What we can ascertain via open-source material indicates that following nine rounds of talks at Moldo-Chushul, on the Chinese side of the LAC, an agreement was reached on January 24th for a limited pullback in Pangong Tso.

The scope of the de-escalation was confirmed shortly thereafter by satellite photographs released by Maxar Technologies taken between January 30 and February 16. These images showed the Chinese dismantling forward positions at Fingers 5 and 6, east of the main standoff site, with the PLA pulling back past Finger 8 to Sirijap. Other PLA units pulled back further still, consolidating within China at the Rutog military garrison, 100km east of Pangong Tso. On 11 February, India’s Defence Minister Rajnath Singh informed MPs that Indian troops were withdrawing to their Dhan Singh Thapa base between Finger 2 and Finger 3 in reciprocity. However, the crux of the agreement was that the PLA’s withdrawal from Pangong Lake and the Chushul Valley sector was independent of those occurring elsewhere in Ladakh. As of writing, China continues to hold positions in eastern Ladakh at the Depsang Plains, near the strategic Indian airbase at Daulat Beg Oldie, and Gogra and Hot Springs. All of these sites remain active following a failed eleventh round of talks and de-escalation in Ladakh remains an ongoing process with a complete drawdown of forces not yet achieved.

“We were on the edge, we were on the brink” 

Located 14,000 feet above sea level south of the Galwan Valley and Hot Springs, Pangong Tso is the world’s highest saline water lake and straddles the LAC between Ladakh and eastern Tibet. The site saw intense fighting in the 1962 Sino-Indian border war and incursions by PLA patrols are common, with clashes occurring in 2017 during the Doklam Standoff in Bhutan and again in 2019. Agreement over the location of the LAC diverges heavily at Pangong Tso. The northern shore, running east to west, consists of a series of mountain ridges that jut sharply into the lake (the so-called ‘fingers’), with Finger 4 being the critical juncture. Beijing’s LAC claims extend past Finger 4 and south towards the Chushul Valley sector, near Rezang La. India, which maintains an irregular presence on Finger 4 claims the LAC is further east towards Finger 8.

The deployment of mechanized regiments by Beijing into Ladakh was far larger than anything seen in recent years and at a scale that seems to have been underappreciated both in New Delhi and at 14 Corps headquarters in Leh.

Starting in April last year, Indian intelligence sources reported the sudden movement of hundreds of PLA vehicles towards Ladakh with multiple ingresses across the LAC occurring shortly thereafter. Now what seems to have occurred is that this information did not reach senior Indian army leaders or local commanders. This is significant, as PLA incursions are common along the LAC but rarely go beyond platoon or company level. The deployment of mechanized regiments by Beijing into Ladakh was far larger than anything seen in recent years and at a scale that seems to have been underappreciated both in New Delhi and at 14 Corps headquarters in Leh. The Indian chain of command did not realize that a crisis was enveloping Ladakh until the second round of skirmishes occurred at Pangong Tso on 10 May. Estimates place 5,000 Chinese soldiers entering Ladakh during this period with the PLA increasing their activity on Finger 4 from around 17 May. As senior flag officers met near Moldo to discuss a pullback, Chinese infrastructure, and troop numbers at Pangong Tso and across Ladakh increased visibly. It is in this context that the Galwan Valley clash occurred on the night of 15 June in the worst violence on the LAC since the Tulung La ambush in Arunachal Pradesh in 1975.

Despite the loss of life further north at the Galwan Valley and the widespread international coverage it garnered, the most dangerous hours of the standoff occurred at Pangong Tso in August. With the PLA presence firmly embedded on Finger 4, on the evening of 29-30 August, India’s Special Frontier Force (SFF), an ethnically Tibetan mountain unit, undertook a dangerous operation to occupy the Rezang La and Rechin La heights in the Kailash mountain range on Pangong Tso’s southern shore. The SFF scaled seven summits, which overlooked Chinese positions on both shores of Pangong Tso, as well as the Chinese camp at Moldo, allowing Indian mechanized units and armor to deploy. Sources differ but at some point during this operation, the PLA attempted to intercede and by 31 August, on Pangong Tso’s southern shore in the Chushul Valley, dozens (perhaps many more), main battle tanks from both the Chinese and Indian armies, were locked in a face to face standoff. In some cases, the opposing sides were mere meters apart. Where Galwan was a violent infantry skirmish that escalated far out of control, at Pangong Tso, two large, mechanized formations were in a premeditated, hair-trigger confrontation.

In an interview with CNN-News18, Lt General YK Joshi highlighted the extent to which tensions, post-Galwan, could have seriously escalated into a Kargil style limited conflict: “We have to be very clear that was a time when war was averted. We were on the edge, we were absolutely on the brink”

Watching Ladakh, thinking Doklam

Diplomacy on the fringes of September’s SCO meeting in Moscow and the return of the bitter Himalayan winter in the same month seemingly prevented further escalation at Pangong Tso. While the phased withdrawal at Pangong Tso represents a limited tactical withdrawal by the PLA in the Himalayas, Sino-Indian tensions have only been placed on pause. Both sides still have large numbers of troops arrayed against each other, notably at Depsang where China is intentionally applying pressure on India’s airbase there, as well as at Gogra and Hotsprings. Amid improving weather conditions going into the summer, alongside the PLA build-up at Depsang, the current wave of standoffs in Ladakh look set to continue.

The primary cause for concern is that Beijing’s intentions in Ladakh remain elusive to New Delhi, increasing the risk of miscalculation. Given the opaque nature of the CCP’s policymaking, we cannot be certain of Xi Jinping and the Central Military Commission’s intentions. Ashley Tellis argues that Modi’s decision to revoke Article 370 for Ladakh, thus transforming it from a region of Jammu and Kashmir into a union territory, may have influenced decision making in Beijing. Dismissed at the time as support for Pakistan, China fiercely criticized India’s revocation and even moved to censor it at the United Nations Security Council. Comments by China’s envoy to India, Sun Weidong, regarding India’s building of infrastructure on the LAC further indicate that Beijing considers the status quo on the LAC voided by New Delhi’s recent moves.

As Blake Herzinger recently highlighted, Beijing deliberately deploys opacity to inject risk and misdirection into its territorial disputes. Given the sheer size of the PLA incursion, compared to the small-scale skirmishes between patrols witnessed previously, this seems to have been a premeditated effort to forcibly change the status quo, challenge Indian territorial integrity near Aksai Chin, and effectively ‘punish’ New Delhi over its Kashmir policy. The continuing presence of the PLA throughout Ladakh, with the pressure being applied on the Depsang Plains and the refusal to withdraw from Gogra and Hot Springs, indicates Beijing is not yet finished eroding India’s tactical position in the Himalayas for its strategic gain.

Trust between the two sides is at an all-time low and Beijing, perhaps sensing a moment of strength, is unlikely to acquiesce to Indian negotiations and seems keen to press the advantage further.

The PLA’s past incursions at Pangong Tso in 2017 and 2019 suggest it is highly likely China will eventually return to Pangong Tso in one form or another, at a time and place of the Western Theatre Command’s choosing and at a point where the Modi administration’s attention is directed elsewhere. The 2017 Doklam standoff in Bhutan offers a likely precedent. Although it was initially believed that the PLA had withdrawn from Doklam and the Modi administration had secured a return to the status quo ante, in reality, Beijing only conducted a limited withdrawal on the plateau and reinforced its positions close to Doklam with hardware and infrastructure. In the years since, China has returned to Bhutan and began altering the status quo again, albeit through other means. NDTV revealed in January this year, that China had created a village in Arunachal Pradesh, similar to the one established in Bhutan, even as the drawdown in Pangong Tso was being implemented. This again suggests a deliberate campaign by Beijing to continue pressuring India on the LAC but at levels designed to incrementally alter the status quo and avoid direct conflict.

The standoff at Pangong Tso and across Ladakh represents the lowest point in Sino-Indian relations since ties were normalized in 1993 and New Delhi faces few good options on the LAC. As COVID-19 cases continue to surge across India and amid reports of Chinese surface-to-air missile batteries being deployed, the Modi government would be unwise to lower its guard in eastern Ladakh. If the relationship is ever to be stabilized a status quo needs to be reached based on a clear delineation, underwritten via an extensive confidence-building framework. At present, however, trust between the two sides is at an all-time low and Beijing, perhaps sensing a moment of strength, is unlikely to acquiesce to Indian negotiations and seems keen to press the advantage further. Thus, with summer fast approaching and de-escalation talks at Gogra and Hot Springs stalled, a reduction in tensions in the Himalayas feels a distant prospect indeed.

Editor’s Note: A version of this piece originally appeared on 9DashLine and has been republished with permission from the editors. 

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Image 1: Gaurav Agarwal via Flickr

Image 2: d-atis via Twitter

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