Indian and Chinese troops have implemented step-wise disengagement in eastern Ladakh’s Galwan and Pangong Tso areas, ending the long standoff between the two ground forces. However, the longstanding standoff persists at more than one location in the Depsang Plains region of Ladakh. The Depsang Plains represent a high-altitude gravelly plain at the northwest portion of the disputed Aksai Chin region of Kashmir, divided into Indian and Chinese administered portions across a Line of Actual Control (LAC).
India controls the western portion of the plains as part of Ladakh, whereas the eastern portion is controlled by China, but which is claimed by India. The Depsang plains are also part of the area called Sub-Sector North (SSN) by the Indian Army. In April 2013, the PLA had set up a temporary camp at the mouth of Depsang Bulge, where the Raki Nala and Depsang Nala meet, claiming it to be Chinese territory.
However, after a threeweek standoff, they withdrew as a result of an agreement with India. In 2015 China tried setting up a watchtower near Burtsa. Any threat to Depsang affects India’s DSDBO road. Initially India had stationed about 120 tanks in the SSN, and over the years the numbers have increased. During the 2020 China-India stand off, the Chinese had laid claims to the Depsang Bulge.
It came to light that Chinese troops had been blocking Indian patrols from proceeding along the Raki Nala valley near the “bottleneck” since 2017. After a resolution to the standoff at Pangong Tso in February, it was reported that the Chinese had started strengthening their positions at Depsang. The Indian military’s SSN is east of Siachen Glacier, located between the Saser Ridge on the southeastern side and the Saltoro Ridge on the Pakistan border.
With regard to a two front war for India this area can provide a linkage for Pakistan and China in Ladakh. The territorial wedge created by Depsang Plains-Karakoram Pass-Shyok Valley prevents this territorial link up, hence its great importance to India. The Depsang Plains are also close to China’s western highway G219.
Depsang at 16,000 feet north of Shyok River is strategically important as it provides India the Daulat Beg Oldie airstrip and Karakoram Pass further north. On its west is the Siachen Glacier under Indian control. Indian patrols have been blocked here by PLA in the Y junction area as the Chinese have intruded 18 km inside since 2013.
Regular patrols to patrol points 10,11, 11A, 12 and 13 have been blocked due to the impasse. Unlike the usual optical satellites, which rely on sunlight to capture images, the Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) generates a picture emitting microwaves and illuminating its target on the earth. The SAR has an advantage over traditional optical satellites as it can capture images at night as well as during bad weather conditions.
The SAR images of a permanent Chinese post, generated by illuminating radio waves during the night, provide glimpses of the Chinese buildup near the LAC. Situated at a distance of about 24 km opposite India’s highest airstrip Daulat Beg Oldie in Ladakh and PLA’s Tianwendian post is an all-season post in Aksai Chin.
The post was established after the 1962 war and has seen consistent upgrades over the past few years. According to the latest imagery, the Tianwendian post with its air defence systems, storages, additional shelters and vehicles for reinforcements serves as the core of the PLA operations in the region. Imagery suggests that its main building has seen additional auxiliary structures, camps, vehicles and fencing since August 2020.
The latest high-resolution imagery were captured on the night of 25 February by the SAR commercial satellites of the USbased space firm, Capella Space. During the current standoff, Chinese troops have brought in their tanks and troops close to Indian positions. The additional buildup of new camps and shelters were first seen in July last year after the brutal hand-to-hand combat between Indian and Chinese troops in the Galwan river valley.
The post initially had three large buildings possibly for accommodating a large number of troops; however, the facility seems to have been expanded to house additional PLA troops during the standoff period. Temporary shelters with defensive walls as well as observation posts are also visible in the new imagery.
India has been asserting that not just Pangong but all friction points across Eastern Ladakh including Depsang Plains and areas around Damchok where Indian grazers have been obstructed should be dealt with and status quo maintained. With India and China agreeing to restore status quo ante on the LAC, a meeting between National Security adviser Ajit Doval and Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, both special representatives on boundary resolution, will soon take place to sort out differences in perception over the undefined border.
However, the back channel talks between the special representatives have ensured no side will unilaterally alter the status quo along the LAC and the status quo will be restored on all other friction points. Wang during his annual press meet on 7 March said India and China needed “to create enabling conditions for the settlement” of the boundary dispute, even as he reiterated China’s view that the “rights and wrongs” of last year’s crisis were clear.
However, defence experts feel that the Chinese are not keen on further disengagement and that is why they are dragging their feet. They claim Hot Springs and Gogra as their own territory. They are not even willing to talk about Depsang.
(The writer is a Member of the Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi and a defence commentator)