In the four rounds of meetings at the level of the Corps Commander, India has not raised the issue of Chinese ingress into the Depsang Plains in northern Ladakh, even though the area is more strategically important than the other ‘friction points’ and the territory on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) being denied to Army patrols by the Chinese is much larger than at Pangong Tso.
This has raised concerns within a section of the security establishment that the continued Indian silence on Depsang could result in a new status quo being created in the strategically important area, where Chinese would have effectively shifted their actual control of the territory 18 km to the west. It would deny India access to a significant part of territory close to the Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO) airfield and bring the Chinese much closer to the strategic Darbuk-Shyok-DBO (DSDBO) road.
“Depsang is tactically and strategically far more important to us than the Pangong lake. It is critical for India’s access to the Daulat Beg Oldie airstrip as well as to the Karakoram region. The DSDBO road is some 6 km away. Any shift in the LAC would be disadvantageous,” said Lt General (retd) DS Hooda, former Northern Army commander.
“By pushing the LAC westward, China thinks it would be further securing the western highway, its main link between the two restive provinces of Xinjiang and Tibet,” he said.
A senior Army officer said Depsang has not been raised with the Chinese so far as it is not a faceoff site, unlike the other four friction points on the LAC where disengagement is being discussed. There is a possibility, the officer said, that Depsang would be raised with the Chinese when discussion on de-escalation along the LAC takes place.
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A section of the security establishment, however, contends that the Indian side has deliberately chosen to not raise Depsang so far, despite its strategic importance, as it wants the Chinese troops to withdraw from the Pangong area. By maintaining silence on Depsang, it hopes to incentivise the Chinese side to restore the status quo ante at Pangong as of April.
In both Depsang and Pangong, the LAC has been disputed by the two sides where both the armies have patrolled the area in contention. Since the current crisis began, the Chinese have stopped Indian patrols from reaching the LAC in both the areas. But the area of Pangong Tso has been more in the national spotlight than Depsang, with inhabited areas closer to the saltwater lake than in northern Ladakh. Pangong is also a prominent tourist spot with better and easier accessibility from Leh, whereby Chinese ingress on the lake has attracted a lot of public attention.
An intelligence official said India has chosen to stay silent on Depsang as the area has been contested between the two sides for years, and the crisis there should not be seen as of recent vintage. He claimed that Indian patrols have not accessed these areas since 2017.
The Army officer, however, said that this is not correct, and India has been patrolling up to its patrolling limits in Depsang regularly.
Lt General (retd) Hooda cited the example of a watch tower constructed by the Chinese on the Indian side of the LAC in September 2015. It was destroyed by the Army, whereby the Chinese accepted that it was on the Indian side.
As reported by The Indian Express on June 25, Bottleneck or Y-junction, the place where Chinese troops are obstructing Indian patrols, is less than 30 km from the DBO airfield and around 7 km from Burtse town on the strategic DSDBO road. Bottleneck, which derives its name from a rocky outcrop that prevents vehicular movement across the Depsang Plains, is around 18 km on the Indian side of the LAC.
By stalling Indian patrols at Bottleneck, Chinese troops are denying India access to five of its patrolling points (PPs): PP-10, PP-11, PP-11A, PP-12 and PP-13. These PPs lie on an arc of around 20 km from Raki Nala to Jiwan Nala, on a line marked as the LoP or Limit of Patrolling, which lies a few kilometres to the west of the LAC.
This is the same place where the Chinese had pitched tents after an ingress in April 2013. The standoff had then lasted three weeks before status quo ante was restored.
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