Stalemate in Ladakh - De-escalation from the friction points and the way ahead

New DelhiWritten By: Major Amit Bansal (Retd)Updated: Oct 11, 2021, 04:31 PM IST

Indian army soldiers walk past their parked trucks at a makeshift transit camp before heading to Ladakh, near Baltal. Photograph:(Reuters)

Story highlights

Depsang is the most critical point of this standoff where Chinese forces have occupied the strategic “Y Junction”

Since May 2020, India and China have been engaged in a serious border standoff in eastern Ladakh. There have been significant ups and downs and loss of precious lives in the Galwan Valley clash after which India took a tough stand prompting China to withdraw its forces from some of the friction points like Pangong Tso and Kailash range.

The talks are on to diffuse the situation further but the progress visibly is very slow. As the 13th round of talks between the Corps commanders on both sides culminated in Moldo garison on Chinese side, dark clouds are looming over the de-escalation from some of the critical areas like Depsang, Hot Spring and Demchok. These three areas figured prominently in the talks which took place in the backdrop of reported Chinese intrusions in Barahoti area of Uttarakhand and upper reaches of Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh just days before.

India has been trying to resolve these issues for a long time but there is no consensus on Chinese withdrawal. Let's discuss these issues one by one.

Situation at Y Junction in Depsang Plains (Photo Courtesy: Major Amit Bansal retd)

Situation at Y Junction in Depsang Plains (Photo Courtesy: Major Amit Bansal retd)

Depsang is the most critical point of this standoff where Chinese forces have occupied the strategic “Y Junction” which is about 18 kilometres inside Indian territory thus denying about 900 square kilometres of area to India.

The “Y Junction” is also the main route to approach five major patrolling points called PP10, PP11, PP11A, PP12 and PP13. 

These patrolling points were mutually established for both countries to demarcate their territories. Further “Y Junction” is located at such a place that it can directly influence Indian movements on Durbuk-Shyok-Daulat Begh Oldi (DSDBO) road as it is located just 7 kilometres away from the road head. 

Indian concerns are genuine because if the DSDBO road is cut, all its forces in Depsang and Daulat Begh Oldi Airbase can be cut off.

Similarly, the Hot Spring area which is just south of Galwan Valley (PP 14) has been another friction point where Chinese forces are sitting right up to Patrol Point 15 (PP 15). 

Although it has reduced its strength since Feb 2021 but it did not completely remove the troops as agreed upon earlier. Like “Y Junction”, Hot Spring also overlooks the strategic DSDBO road and any Chinese aggression beyond this point can hamper the Indian interests further north. 

A matter of concern is that China has established a logistics facility including an air defence base and some artillery units in the Hot Spring area. Being in the vicinity of Kongka pass, China can move its troops in large strength at short notice in this area. During the 1962 war also Hot Spring witnessed action as it was the headquarter of a company of the Indian army. Such deployments bring into question the very intention of the Chinese leadership and are detrimental to the concurrent confidence-building exercises. 

Unlike Depsang and Hot Spring, Demchok is a very old issue and has been on the cards during all the meetings with China ever since 1990.

So, when the 13th round of talks was concluded on Sunday, 10th October 2021, uncertainty is looming on both sides ending into a stalemate. 

China has its own demands. Although it also wants to de-escalate the situation and affirms pull-back of troops but it wants troop disengagement in-depth areas first before removing its forces from the friction points. This also includes the withdrawal of Indian forces from DSDBO road which is the lifeline of the Indian forces. On the other hand, India wants the withdrawal of troops from the friction points first and then from the depth areas in a phased manner. 

Since there was no consensus, the situation is leading to serious repercussions. One of them is that winters are approaching and no consensus on withdrawal during this meeting means another long winter haul over the icy heights of eastern Ladakh. It is not good for both the countries as survival in these icy heights is not only difficult but an expensive affair too. Another repercussion is that after June 2020 Galwan Valley clash, there has been a significant loss of trust on both sides which is causing difficulties in resolving the situation.

There are worries too as China is building up infrastructure in Aksai Chin and Ladakh area at an alarming pace. Airbases, radar stations, logistics bases, roads, tunnels, permanent weatherproof accommodations, and training facilities apart from missiles and other heavy weapon systems are getting deployed in the entire Western Theatre Command of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) which cover the entire area along McMohan line and Line of Actual Control (LAC). 

Since there is a loss of trust, the road ahead is quite bumpy and will take longer than expected time to resolve the situation. Till February 2021, we were finding it difficult to de-escalate the situation in the Pangong Tso area too but finally, the consensus was achieved so we can hope that in due course of time, positive results may be visible in other areas too.

Indo-China boundary dispute, however, is more than 70 years old and both countries fought a major war over the icy heights of Himalaya in 1962 so the final solution can not be achieved militarily but a thorough political engagement, discussion and continuous involvement of leaders of both the countries. 

There are several unfinished agendas on the cards which were ignored by the past governments resulting in the present stalemate. As someone said that "mistakes of the past take sometimes to correct the course".

We can only wait and watch.

(Disclaimer: The views of the writer do not represent the views of WION or ZMCL. Nor does WION or ZMCL endorse the views of the writer.)