Chinese PLA activity north of Tawang raises red flags

Oct 26, 2021 09:07 AM IST

The sectors across which the Indian Army has detected PLA’s increased operational tempo include Lungro La, Zimithang, and Bum La — areas of high historical significance in the context of Chinese aggression in the eastern sector

Tawang (Arunachal Pradesh): The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has intensified patrolling in sensitive areas across the contested border in Arunachal Pradesh after a lingering standoff with India began last year in the Ladakh sector, and has ramped up area domination patrols for surveillance and orientation of newly inducted troops with a noticeable increase in visits by senior PLA officers to forward areas to supervise military activities, data accessed by Hindustan Times shows.

Indian Army soldiers stand next to an M777 Ultra Lightweight Howitzer positioned at Penga Teng Tso ahead of Tawang, near the Line of Actual Control (LAC), neighbouring China, in Arunachal Pradesh. (AFP)
Indian Army soldiers stand next to an M777 Ultra Lightweight Howitzer positioned at Penga Teng Tso ahead of Tawang, near the Line of Actual Control (LAC), neighbouring China, in Arunachal Pradesh. (AFP)

The sectors across which the Indian Army has detected PLA’s increased operational tempo include Lungro La, Zimithang and Bum La — areas of high historical significance in the context of Chinese aggression in the eastern sector — and counter measures have been taken to boost India’s readiness to handle any contingency, three senior officers monitoring Chinese activities in the North-East said on condition of anonymity.

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An activity matrix prepared by the Indian Army to summarise the latest developments in the Lungro La sector showed PLA carried out 90 patrols in the area from January 2020 to October 2021 (hereinafter referred to as 2020-21) compared to about 40 between January 2018 and December 2019 (hereinafter referred to as 2018-19). This more than doubling of PLA patrols has been attributed by the army to the “current operational situation”.

HT has reviewed the activity matrix.

The duration of long-range patrols by either side along LAC can stretch from one week to four weeks in the Arunachal Pradesh sector, according to officers deployed in the area.

Area domination patrols by PLA also spiked between the pre- and post-Ladakh standoff timeline, shooting up from barely 10 during 2018-19 to 35 in 2020-21 (till September), data from the activity matrix shows.

A normal patrol is carried out by soldiers in unoccupied, remote areas to ensure there is no encroachment by the adversary and involves marking territory by physical presence, while area domination patrols are aimed at control over the area and suppressing any activity by the enemy, a senior officer said.

Along with the increased Chinese patrolling and area domination activities, the Indian Army’s surveillance network has picked up a corresponding jump in visits by senior PLA officers to the Lungro La area north of Tawang — up from 10 visits in the two years before the Ladakh border row erupted to 40 in 2020-21 (till September), according to the activity matrix.

In the Indian Army’s assessment, the increase in frequency of visits by top PLA officers is “due to the importance of the sector, current operational situation and familiarisation visits”, says an analysis in the activity matrix.

Granular details of PLA activities have become known to the Indian Army because of heightened surveillance along LAC and in Chinese depth areas using satellites, long-range unmanned aerial vehicles, high-tech intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) systems, superior network of radars and hi-tech night vision systems, said one of the officers cited above.

Another document seen by HT analysed in detail the latest developments in the Zimithang sector, also north of Tawang.

The Indian Army took up forward positions in the Lungro La and Zimithang sectors in 1986-87 to dominate the Sumdorong Chu valley during a tense standoff with PLA there.

PLA patrols in the Zimithang sector climbed from eight in 2018 and 2019 to 24 from January 2020 to September 2021; area domination patrols rose from around 25 to 40, and visits by senior PLA officers went up from around 70 to 140, data from the second document shows.

For the corresponding period in Bum La from where the Chinese forces made an ingress into Indian territory during the 1962 war, PLA patrols increased from 33 to 40, area domination patrols fell from 13 to 10, while visits by senior PLA officers went up from just one in 2018-19 to 25 in 2020-21 (till October), data from a third document shows.

Indian surveillance also picked up increased vehicular movement due to infrastructure development activities and a large number of excavators and bulldozers to keep road axes open across the Lungro La, Zimithang and Bum La sectors, said a second officer.

The Chinese actions across the three important sectors are part of a process to step up coercive posture against India, military historian and author Air Vice Marshal Arjun Subramaniam (retd) said.

“We are no longer wet behind the ears. We have the necessary wherewithal to adopt a counter-coercive posture against China. Robust joint operations, including extensive air operations by the Indian Air Force, have helped strengthen our posture significantly,” Subramaniam said.

He said that China was shifting its focus from Ladakh to other areas along LAC, including Arunachal Pradesh, to keep India unsettled on multiple fronts.

Last week, Eastern Army commander Lieutenant General Manoj Pande said that China has ramped up the scale and duration of its military drills across LAC in Arunachal Pradesh, and the reserve formations mobilised by PLA are still deployed there. He said India deployed adequate forces in all sectors and the military is rehearsing and preparing for various contingencies that could arise.

“In certain areas where our deployment was thin, steps have been taken to strengthen it,” Pande said, days after the 13th round of military talks between India and China to cool tensions in Ladakh reached an impasse on October 10, with PLA not agreeing to suggestions made by the Indian Army.

The military dialogue took place more than two months after the last round of talks that led to disengagement of forward deployed troops from Gogra, or Patrol Point-17A, which was one of the flashpoints on LAC in Ladakh.

The Asapila sector in Arunachal Pradesh is among the areas where the Indian Army observed infrastructure development by PLA close to LAC, and it had led to a corresponding increase in troop deployment there, Pande said on October 19.

On face-offs between rival troops at Naku La in north Sikkim, he said that patrols came face-to-face in the area because of differing perceptions of LAC, and protocols were in place to resolve the situation even though sometimes confrontations lasted longer.

Scores of Indian and Chinese soldiers were involved in a tense face-off in Naku La in May 2020, with rival troops suffering injuries in the confrontation. Another face-off took place in the same sector earlier this year, with the developments making the area a possible flashpoint in the east.

The Indian Army has positioned formidable weapon systems in the eastern sector to strengthen its posture against PLA, including M777 ultra-light howitzers that can be swiftly deployed and redeployed in challenging mountainous terrain using the CH-47F Chinook helicopters and the 155 mm FH 77 BO2 guns, better known as the Bofors.

“Eastern Command will have to remain prepared for all contingencies including additional deployment to strengthen the defensive posture. As long as disengagement and de-escalation remain stalled in Ladakh, the situation will remain tense,” former Northern Army commander Lieutenant General DS Hooda (retd) said on October 19.

Two mountain scribbles along the meandering lake-dotted route from Tawang to Bum La say it best about the army’s readiness and resolve to tackle any threat from the adversary — the Sikh Regiment’s motto “Nischay Kar Apni Jeet Karo” (With determination, I will be triumphant), and the more cavalier “Live Dangerously”.

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