Satellite images capture China’s PLA build-up in Ladakh
China has not halted — and instead has ramped up — its military activity along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh’s Galwan Valley, with a concentration of soldiers, military vehicles, earth-moving machinery, and erection of structures, including near the same point where Indian and Chinese troops clashed on the night of June 15, according to two senior officials and satellite imagery of the area on June 22.
The Indian army has observed a new structure, suspected to be an observation post, come up near Patrol Point (PP) 14, the site of the clash which left 20 personnel of the Indian army and an unconfirmed number of Chinese troops dead, said one of the officials cited above.
There was no official word from the army on either of the developments. India and China agreed to pull back from friction areas on Monday.
New satellite imagery, released by US firm Maxar Technologies, supports the claim that not only is the PLA holding ground in Galwan Valley but has also shored up its military positions in the area. One of the Maxar images too possibly points out a new and bigger observation post near PP-14. An Indian squad, led by the slain Colonel Santosh Babu of the 16 Bihar Regiment, had flattened some structures in this area including an observation post, on June 15.
The satellite images are from June 22 — the day senior Indian and Chinese military commanders reached a “mutual consensus to disengage” from all friction areas during an 11-hour meeting at Moldo on the Chinese side of the LAC.
Officials and China watchers, who reviewed the images for Hindustan Times, said the visuals clearly indicated a Chinese buildup and also a new outpost for carrying out surveillance on Indian areas. But they also added that it was important to give the armies time to disengage and pointed to the complexities of satellite imagery.
“A large number of tented camps, military vehicles, heavy trucks and bulldozers are clearly visible on the riverbed. Road construction is also taking place. The Chinese positions are bang on the LAC,” said former Northern Army commander Lieutenant General DS Hooda (retd), one of the experts who reviewed the satellite imagery for HT. Hooda said the observation post appeared to have come up again near PP-14.
The Chinese buildup in other areas along the LAC including Depsang, Gogra Post-Hot Springs and Pangong Tso, hasn’t thinned either. The PLA’s armoured vehicles and artillery units remain deployed in Chinese areas facing Depsang and Gogra Post-Hot Springs sectors.
The army is keeping a strict vigil along the LAC and is fully prepared to respond to any provocation or adventurism by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), said the second officer cited above. Given the observed build-up, the army is also prepared to keep its guards up till disengagement takes place on the ground on a verifiable basis.
But experts also said that it was important to be cautious.
The process of disengagement is likely to be arduous and challenging, and will require moving ahead cautiously in phases, as reported by HT on Wednesday.
“Disengagement can’t happen overnight. While the images are a cause for concern and somewhat reveal China’s intentions to hold ground near LAC in Galwan Valley, the result of the talks between senior commanders will not reflect on the ground in just two days,” Hooda said.
The interpretation of satellite imagery is also tricky and can result in reaching incorrect conclusions, said Lieutenant General Vinod Bhatia (retd), a former director general of military operations.
“It’s about how you superimpose the LAC on satellite images. It allows you to reach your conclusions. However, some of the interpretation may be correct,” said Bhatia who heads the Centre for Joint Warfare Studies, a defence ministry think tank.
China has deployed more than 10,000 troops in its ‘depth areas’ across the LAC in eastern Ladakh and the military buildup consists of fighter jets, helicopters, tanks, artillery guns, missile systems and air defence radars. India has matched the neighbour’s military moves.
While disengagement in some friction areas is believed to be a “low-hanging fruit” and can be achieved in a reasonable time-frame, the “real test” would lie in the restoration of status quo ante in the Finger Area in Pangong-Tso, where the PLA has set up permanent bunkers, pillboxes and observation posts, officials said. China watchers believe that the disengagement process is likely to be less complicated in the Gogra Post-Hot Springs and the Galwan Valley sectors, where there are no real issues about the alignment of the LAC, if Beijing abides by the understanding.