India occupies key LAC heights as tensions spiral
Border tensions with China have spiralled in the sensitive Ladakh sector after the Indian Army occupied key heights on the southern bank of Pangong Lake to prevent the Chinese People Liberation’s Army (PLA) from grabbing Indian territory in a stealthy midnight move on August 29, officials familiar with the developments said on Tuesday.
The PLA made a second provocative move on August 31 but the Indian Army took “timely defensive action” to thwart the Chinese attempt to unilaterally alter the status quo in the sector, the ministry of external affairs said on Tuesday.
The army is on high alert to deal with any adventurism by the PLA in the sector, where both armies have concentrated a significant number of soldiers, tanks and artillery pieces; and are within each other’s rifle range, said an official cited above, requesting anonymity.
While India said on Monday that it had pre-empted China’s “provocative military movements” to change the status quo along the LAC on the lake’s southern bank, China claimed that the Indian Army “broke the consensus” reached at talks and “illegally crossed the line again near the south bank of Pangong Lake and Reqin Pass, making a blatant provocation and causing tension.”
The Indian Army is holding a series of positions near Black Top (a hill feature) and on Rezang La and Reqin pass that are on the Indian side of the LAC and allow the army to completely dominate the area and keep an eye on Chinese military activity, said a second official. Specialist mountain troops played a key role in taking these heights and one of them was killed in a landmine blast.
The second provocative action by the PLA on August 31 was targeted at these heights held by the Indian Army, the official said.
“The Indian Army’s taking up positions on the lake’s southern bank was the most befitting action to pre-empt what was seen as inevitable along this part of the LAC,” said Lieutenant General AS Lamba (retd), a former army vice chief.
The latest developments have deepened the trust deficit between the two sides and dealt a blow to efforts to reduce tensions in the Ladakh sector, where both armies have deployed almost 100,000 soldiers and weaponry in their forward and depth areas.
Defence minister Rajnath Singh held a meeting with external affairs minister S Jaishankar, national security adviser Ajit Doval and the top military brass to review the latest developments in eastern Ladakh, with the focus on the volatile situation near the Pangong Lake following the Indian Army’s pre-emptive military move and the counter-action by the PLA.
“Indian troops pre-empted PLA activity on the southern bank of Pangong Lake, undertook measures to strengthen our positions and thwart Chinese intentions to unilaterally change facts on ground,” army spokesperson Colonel Aman Anand said on Monday, without elaborating on the nature of the Chinese provocation and how Indian soldiers blocked PLA’s actions.
Another flag meeting of brigade commanders was held at Chushul on Tuesday to de-escalate tensions but its outcome was not immediately known.
More than 200 Chinese soldiers were involved in the attempt to occupy Indian territory, but a sufficient number of Indian troops – armed with accurate intelligence about PLA movements in the area -- warded off the threat.
Until now, tensions in this sector were confined to the Finger Area on Pangong Lake’s northern bank.
The army said on Monday that while it was committed to maintaining peace and tranquility along the LAC through dialogue, it was equally determined to protect the country’s territorial integrity.
Experts said the military and diplomatic talks or economic measures against China haven’t led to any change in PLA’s behaviour in the Ladakh sector.
“We need to review if these steps have had any impact at all. It is clear that China has no plans to restore status quo ante. On the contrary, it is constantly making efforts to change the status quo and continues to use the military option,” said former Northern Army commander Lieutenant General DS Hooda (retd).
The PLA has sparked fresh tensions along the LAC at a time when military and diplomatic talks with China to implement a complex disengagement plan have hit a wall.
The sizeable Chinese troop presence at friction points, particularly the northern bank of Pangong Lake and Depsang, remains an area of key concern for the Indian Army. The Finger Area – a set of eight cliffs jutting out of Sirijap range overlooking Pangong Lake – has emerged as the hardest part of the disengagement process.
Disengagement has progressed somewhat smoothly at friction points in Galwan Valley and Hot Springs, but its pace remains sluggish in the Gogra area.