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China Constructing Bridge on Pangong Tso

Context:

China is constructing a bridge in Eastern Ladakh connecting the North and South Banks of Pangong Tso which would significantly bring down the time for People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to move troops and equipment between the two sectors.

Relevance:

GS-II: International Relations (India’s Neighbors, Foreign Policies affecting India’s Interests, Border disputes)

Dimensions of the Article:

  1. About Pangong Tso lake
  2. Fingers in the lake
  3. Shifting Positions
  4. Tactical significance of the Panging Tso
  5. About the new bridge in Pangong Tso being constructed by China

About Pangong Tso lake

  • Pangong Tso is a long narrow, deep, endorheic (landlocked – a drainage basin that normally retains water and allows no outflow to other external bodies of water, such as rivers or oceans, but drainage converges instead into lakes or swamps that equilibrate through evaporation) lake situated at a height of more than 14,000 ft in the Ladakh Himalayas.
  • It is 134 km (83 mi) long and extends from India to the Tibetan Autonomous Region, China.
  • Approximately 60% of the length of the lake lies within the Tibetan Autonomous Region.
  • It is NOT a part of the Indus River basin area and geographically a separate landlocked river basin.
  • The lake is in the process of being identified under the Ramsar Convention as a wetland of international importance.
  • The 135 km-long lake sprawls over 604 sq km in the shape of a boomerang, and is 6 km wide at its broadest point. The western end of Tso lies 54 km to the southeast of Leh.

Fingers in the lake

  • The barren mountains on the lake’s northern bank, called the Chang Chenmo, jut forward in major spurs, which the Army calls “fingers”.
  • India claims that the LAC is coterminous with Finger 8, but it physically controls area only up to Finger 4.
  • Chinese use light vehicles on the road to patrol up to Finger 2, which has a turning point for their vehicles.
  • If they are confronted and stopped by an Indian patrol in between, asking them to return, it leads to confusion, as the vehicles can’t turn back.
  • The Chinese have now stopped the Indian soldiers moving beyond Finger 2.

Confrontation on the water

  • On the water, the Chinese had a major advantage until a few years ago — their superior boats could literally run circles around the Indian boats.
  • But India purchased better Tampa boats some eight years ago, leading to a quicker and more aggressive response.

Out of bounds for tourists

  • Tourists were not allowed at all at Pangong Tso until 1999, and even today, you need to obtain an Inner Line Permit from the office of the Deputy Commissioner at Leh.
  • Tourists are only allowed up to Spangmik village, around 7 km into the lake.

Shifting Positions

  • In 1960, India certainly viewed China’s presence in areas where the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) transgressed in May 2020 as being beyond Beijing’s own territorial claims.
  • At the north bank of Pangong Tso, the PLA moved up to Finger 4 and prevented India from crossing Finger 4.
  • China now claims up to Finger 4, while India says the LAC is at Finger 8.
  • However, since May 2020, for the first time, completely cut off India’s access to its LAC at Finger 8, effectively shifting the line 8 km west.
  • China’s current moves to enforce its Line of Actual Control (LAC) claims, which sparked the recent border incidents, mark a shift from what Beijing told India in 1960 about where its boundaries were, both in the Galwan Valley and Pangong Lake.

The Fingers refer to mountain spurs on the bank, and run from 1 to 8, west to east.

China controls 1,000 sq. km of area in Ladakh

  • About 1,000 square kilometres of area in Ladakh along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) is now under Chinese control, intelligence inputs provided to the Centre suggest.
  • From Depsang Plains to Chushul there had been a systematic mobilisation by the Chinese troops along the undefined LAC.
  • Chinese forces are occupying a considerable area from Finger 4 to 8 near Pangong Tso (lake).
  • The distance between Finger 4-8, the mountainous spurs abutting the lake, is about eight km.
  • The stretch was patrolled both by India and China till the clashes in May 2020 and India considers it to form part of its perception of the LAC.

Tactical significance of the Panging Tso

  • By itself, the lake does not have major tactical significance. But it lies in the path of the Chushul approach, one of the main approaches that China can use for an offensive into Indian-held territory.
  • Indian assessments show that a major Chinese offensive, if it comes, will flow across both the north and south of the lake.
  • During the 1962 war, this was where China launched its main offensive.
  • Over the years, the Chinese have built motorable roads along their banks of the Pangong Tso.
  • Even during peacetime, the difference in perception over where the LAC lies on the northern bank of the lake, makes this contested terrain.
  • In 1999, when the Army unit from the area was moved to Kargil for Operation Vijay, China took the opportunity to build 5 km of road inside Indian territory along the lake’s bank.

About the new bridge in Pangong Tso being constructed by China

  • A new bridge on Pangong Tso is being constructed by China which will provide an additional axis to deploy troops faster between the north and south banks of the lake, and closer to the LAC.
  • The bridge is being constructed more than 20 km east of Finger 8 on the lake’s north bank – (India says Finger 8 denotes the LAC). The bridge site is just east of Khurnak Fort in Rutog county where the PLA has frontier bases. (Historically a part of India, Khurnak Fort has been under Chinese control since 1958.)
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Recent Developments along the border

  • Before India and China pulled back troops from the north and south banks in February 2021, the area had seen massive mobilisation and the two sides even deployed tanks, barely a few hundred metres apart in some locations.
  • China has been developing infrastructure in the entire region since the start of the standoff — it is still to be resolved. The widening of roads, building of new roads and bridges, new bases, airstrips, advance landing bases, etc are not restricted to the eastern Ladakh region, but are happening across the three sectors of the India-China boundary.
  • India too has been improving its infrastructure in the border areas – In 2021 alone, the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) completed more than 100 projects in border areas, the majority of which were close to the border with China.
  • India is also improving its surveillance along the entire 3488-km boundary, and has been building new airstrips and landing areas.

-Source: The Hindu

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