While attention has been focused on the Galwan Valley following the June 15 violence, another unprecedented face-off has been unfolding at Pangong Tso. By erecting tents and other structures on Indian territory between Finger 4 and Finger 8, China’s PLA has changed rules of agreements, says Colonel S. Dinny (retd.), who commanded an infantry battalion at Pangong Tso until 2017.
Having served at Pangong Lake, how different is the current situation?
The problem peculiar to this place is China’s perception of the LAC is at Finger 4 and our perception is at Finger 8. The Fingers [mountain spurs] are numbered 1 to 8, from west to east. So, there is a distance of 8 km where the entire conflict has been happening. Our post is between Finger 2 and 3, which is well connected by a road from depth areas. There is a track to 1 km short of Finger 4, but it ends there. After that, it’s only a foot track.
The Chinese are at Sirijap, which is 8 km east of Finger 8. They built a road up to Finger 4 in 1999 when Indian troop presence was limited because of Kargil. No vehicle can cross Finger 4. When we patrol up to Finger 8, we have to go on foot. The Chinese have the advantage as they can come up to Finger 4 on vehicles.
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They have been sensitive to our presence in this area because they felt they built the road, and they dominated up to Finger 4. They do not want us to come to Finger 8 frequently, so some times they stop us. As per agreements, when stopped, you cannot bypass them. We reciprocate, and stop them before they come to Finger 4. For many years, it was a one-man show and they were dominating. Only in the past 7 or 8 years we have started pushing our infrastructure so our presence has increased. What [encounters] used to happen once or twice a month, is now on an almost daily basis.
What explains the timing?
Two things happen every summer. All the infrastructure work starts, and you have more troops in the area because annual exercises happen during that time. The winter at 17,000 feet is cruel. Summer is when you can both construct infrastructure and protest it, so you see escalation of conflicts.
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What is different this time?
Firstly, the scale at which the status quo has been changed is blatant. In Pangong Tso, both sides know there is a dispute, but they have unilaterally changed the status quo and in a blatant way, by erecting structures [between Finger 4 and 8] for everyone to see, in a way that shows they do not respect past agreements. No country can allow such a thing to happen even if this territory is disputed. Also different is the scale of violence [several brawls reportedly took place in May].
Also read: Galwan was an ‘unfortunate incident’, PLA officers tell Indian side at Corps Commander-level talks
What are India’s options?
The approach of the Indian Army and government is the right one. We have ensured a balance of forces so if anyone wants to escalate, there will be no surprise. Having said that, my view is kinetic action is the last resort. People are jumping to that and saying we should evict them physically. We have not reached that stage.
The talks itself are a positive sign that both want to de-escalate. Both will be looking for an honourable exit. If the situation is prolonged, it is ideal for the exit strategy because if it is abrupt, there is a sudden notion of victory or loss of face. Hopefully, we will have a gradual de-escalation by winter and be back to the status quo ante of April. Else it will be a long haul, and other means will come into play.
Also read: Armed forces ‘given free hand’ to respond to situation at LAC
The violence on June 15 in Galwan Valley was unprecedented, and so are the multiple stand-offs at different points. What explains this?
My reading is although the trigger was at Pangong Tso, slowly but steadily the scale has expanded. The June 15 incident definitely came as a shock to me. I always had this fear that someday things could get out of hand. By God’s grace, none of the troops opened fire. People have asked why they didn’t use weapons. I think that was a good decision from both sides to adhere to agreements and protocols despite the violence. If they did use weapons, the casualties would have been in hundreds. There is a sincere and serious requirement for revisiting these agreements now because our contacts are increasing.
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Asking for a border resolution is far fetched, but what both armies can definitely do is follow a no-patrolling zone in the 23 or so areas along the LAC where there are differing perceptions. Now we have unmanned aerial vehicles and other assets to observe this, and we do not need physical contact of troops. I don’t want to say it, but the day is not far away when people may actually start using weapons. If there is a no-patrolling zone, you will find there is a drastic reduction in this kind of conflict, which would be a great thing for peace and tranquillity on the border.