China continues to consolidate its positions in the faceoff with Indian soldiers on the north bank of Pangong Tso at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh, but the first signs of tension in the area emerged last September, days after the government announced abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir and creation of Ladakh as a separate Union Territory.
Ever since a brawl on September 11 last year – 10 Indian security personnel were injured in the incident — the Chinese side has been attempting to block Indian patrols from proceeding towards Finger 8 on the north bank of the lake.
India says the LAC in the area is coterminous with Finger 8, while the Chinese claim it to be a few kilometres further to the west — Fingers are mountainous spurs jutting out from the ridge on the north bank towards the lake.
An official told The Indian Express that there was no physical clash between the two sides for more than two years in the Pangong Tso area, after a video of Indian and Chinese soldiers in a brawl on the north bank on August 15, 2017 did the rounds. That scuffle, in which four Army and ITBP personnel were injured, had occurred while soldiers of both countries were locked in a tense 73-day standoff on the Doklam plateau at the India-Bhutan-China trijunction.
While both sides continued to object to patrolling and followed the banner drill – each side showing a banner for 10 minutes, asking the other side’s patrol to return to its area – there was no physical clash, the official said.
Indian patrols were allowed to proceed on foot towards Finger 8, while the Chinese patrols would come in vehicles up to Finger 4. The patrols would often be intercepted short of their destination, but there was no attempt to completely block them.
The change in the Chinese approach, the official said, came on September 10 last year when PLA troops vehemently started blocking Indian patrols from proceeding towards Finger 8. This was barely a month after the Bill for abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir and creation of Ladakh as a separate Union Territory was passed in Parliament on August 5.
Tensions were high and things went out of hand when two PLA companies came in eight heavy vehicles up to Finger 4 on the morning of September 11. Sharp words were exchanged, and a violent scuffle ensued, the official said, leaving 10 Army and ITBP personnel injured. The brawl extended to the waters of the lake, where three Army boats were damaged by Chinese soldiers. The Indian side also damaged two Chinese boats.
PLA soldiers also removed a semi-permanent structure of stones made by the Indian side, a kind of an observation post, at Finger 4. They then constructed a similar stone structure to the west of their base at Finger 8, the official said, and started blocking Indian patrols from proceeding towards their destination.
Indian troops began taking an alternate track to reach Finger 8 on foot, going behind the heights at Finger 4. This was strongly objected to by the Chinese and tensions mounted in the area, leading to the violent scuffle on the intervening night of May 5/6 this year which not only left many soldiers on both sides injured but also triggered the standoff.
In the past two months, there have been at least three clashes between Indian and Chinese soldiers in the Pangong Tso area. As seen in satellite images, the Chinese side has constructed pillboxes, shelters, breast-walls and bunkers at Finger 4, both on the bank and the ridge, where they have deployed troops in large numbers.
The location of LAC in the Pangong Tso area has been a contentious issue between both countries, as evident from the number of Chinese transgressions recorded by the Indian side. There were 142 Chinese transgressions in 2019, up from 72 in 2018 and 112 in 2017.
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