By Simon Scarr and Sanjeev Miglani
In the days leading up to the most violent border clash between India and China in decades, China brought in pieces of machinery, cut a trail into a Himalayan mountainside and may have even dammed a river, satellite pictures suggest.
The fighting was triggered by a row over two Chinese tents and observation towers that India said had been built on its side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), government sources in New Delhi and on the Indian side of the border in the Ladakh region said.
The clash was the most serious since 1967. Since early May, soldiers have faced off on the border where India says Chinese troops had intruded and set up temporary structures. The confrontation turned into a deadly brawl on Monday.
China had sought to erect a “structure” in the Galwan Valley on India’s side of the LAC even after military officials had reached an agreement on June 6 to de-escalate, Foreign Minister S Jaishankar told China’s senior diplomat, Wang Yi, in a phone call on Wednesday, the Ministry of External Affairs said. It was not immediately clear to what structure he was referring.
The problem arose when an Indian patrol visited the area near a ridge to verify a Chinese assertion that its troops had moved back from the LAC, the two government sources aware of the military situation said.
The Chinese troops had thinned out and left behind the two tents and small observation posts. The Indian party demolished the towers and burnt the tents, the sources said.
The satellite image shows possible debris from the observation posts on Tuesday morning on a ridge on India’s side of the LAC. There was no such structure in the image taken a week earlier.
But the Indian response prompted a backlash. A large group of Chinese soldiers arrived and confronted the Indian troops, led by Colonel Santosh Babu. They were lightly armed in line with the rules of engagement at the LAC, one of the sources said.
The path to confrontation
The images, shot on Tuesday, a day after soldiers engaged in hand-to-hand combat in the freezing Galwan Valley, show an increase in activity from a week earlier.
The satellite pictures, taken by Earth-imaging company Planet Labs and obtained by Reuters, show signs of altering the landscape of the valley through widening tracks, moving earth and making river crossings, one expert said.
The images shows machinery along the bald mountains and in the Galwan River.
“Looking at it in Planet, it looks like China is constructing roads in the valley and possibly damming the river,” Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at California’s Middlebury Institute of International Studies.
“There are a ton of vehicles on both sides (of the LAC) – although there appear to be vastly more on the Chinese side. I count 30-40 Indian vehicles and well over 100 vehicles on the Chinese side.”
Reuters counted and marked all of the structures, vehicles and equipment that were visible in the image from June 16.
The crop below shows the build-up of trucks along the banks of the river further away from the LAC. However, it also looks like some tents have been removed since the June 9 image.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said he was unaware of the specifics on the ground but reiterated that the Indian army had crossed into China’s territory in several places in recent days and that they should withdraw.
The 4,056-km (2,520-mile) border between India and China runs through glaciers, snow deserts and rivers in the west to thickly forested mountains in the east.
The Galwan Valley is an arid, inhospitable area, where some soldiers are deployed on steep ridges. It is considered important because it leads to the Aksai Chin.
India and China have not exchanged gunfire at the border since 1967, despite occasional flare-ups. Soldiers are under instructions to keep their rifles slung at their backs.
It was not clear what happened after the Chinese soldiers arrived, but the two sides soon clashed, with the Chinese using iron rods and batons with spikes, one of the sources said.
Colonel Babu was one of the 20 victims, they said. More Indian troops were rushed in and the confrontation turned into an hours-long brawl eventually involving up to 900 soldiers, the source said. Still no shots were fired on either side.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao rejected the Indian version of the events. “The rights and wrongs of this incident are very clear. The responsibility does not lie with China.”