Is Pangong Tso just a smokescreen and Depsang Plains China’s main target?
NEW DELHI: The strategically-located Depsang Plains in Ladakh did not find any mention in defence minister Rajnath Singh’s detailed statements in Parliament despite Chinese soldiers blocking all Indian patrols there since April and a massive mobilisation by the two rival armies in the region.
A senior defence official, asked about this by TOI on Thursday, said Depsang was an “old lingering issue” that should not be “equated or conflated” with the “new flashpoints” in Pangong Tso-Chushul, Gogra-Hot Springs and Galwan Valley this year. “There is no immediate military standoff at Depsang, where there are huge overlapping claims about the Line of Actual Control (LAC). There is no fresh attempt to change the status quo there,” he added.
But there is growing concern in security circles that China could be diverting India’s attention from the far more important Depsang region through its aggressive manoeuvres in the Pan-gong Tso-Chushul and other areas lower down along the frontier in Ladakh.
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has for the last five months been actively blocking Indian soldiers in Depsang from going to their traditional Patrolling Points 10, 11, 11A, 12 and 13, which are well short of India’s LAC claim further to the east there, as was earlier reported by TOI.
PLA troops camping near the ‘Bottleneck’ or ‘Y-junction’ area in Depsang, which is around 18 km inside what India perceives to be its territory, swing into action to block an Indian patrol whenever they see it approaching.
China, in fact, claims 972 sq km of territory in the region. A core concern for Beijing is that the Depsang-Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO) sector is in close proximity to its Western Highway G-219, which connects the Tibetan Autonomous Region to Xinjiang.
The PLA has deployed over 12,000 troops, with tanks and artillery guns, from its 4th Motorised Infantry Division and 6th Mechanised Infantry Division, in its depth areas across the LAC there.
Since May, India has also counter-deployed with two additional brigades (each has around 3,000 troops) as well as tank and mechanised infantry regiments in the Depsang tabletop plateau, which located at an altitude of 16,000 ft provides access to the DBO advance landing ground and the critical Karakoram Pass in the north. “India could be playing into the hands of China by trying to delink Depsang from the friction points to the south and allowing the PLA to get away with what it wants,” another officer said.
“Unlike the Line of Control with Pakistan, which is physically held with permanent deployments, the only way to press our claim along the LAC is to patrol to our PPs. But access to our PPs has been cut off in Depsang,” the officer added.
The last major troops face-off in Depsang Plains, incidentally, took place in April-May 2013. The PLA troops had then intruded 19 km across the LAC to camp at the Raki Nala area, with the confrontation finally resolved after 21 days of hectic diplomatic negotiations.