The new 330-metre-long bridge over the narrowest part of the Pangong Tso in Eastern Ladakh, under construction by China’s People’s Liberation Army, has caused some consternation on our side. Public knowledge about such things is usually poor because the context is unclear; that is why it is important to know what exactly this is all about.
The Pangong Tso is a massive high-altitude lake on the East Ladakh plateau at an average height of 15,000 feet. It is 134 kilometres long and has a maximum width of five kilometres. About 50% of the lake supposedly lies in Tibet with 40% in Eastern Ladakh and 10 km is claimed by both India and China. It’s a military obstacle, meaning that operations from one side to the other can only be done by deliberate bridging or by other means of obstacle crossing. It means that when the PLA was transgressing in the Fingers complex on the north bank of the lake, the Indian Army could not physically interfere or conduct operations such as reinforcement or counter-attacks, from the south bank. Any response would mean swinging around the lake on our side and accessing the north bank. A major time penalty would occur, allowing consolidation time if it wishes to do the transgression again. Alternatively we would have to pre-position troops in fair strength, to cater to some contingencies.
The above analogy applies equally to the PLA. When the Indian Army decided to occupy the seven unoccupied heights on the Kailash Range on the night of 29–30 August 2020, a couple of things happened. First, the PLA was completely surprised; it did not expect an aggressive act on the part of the Indian Army due to the largely defensive strategy the country has followed vis-a-vis China since 1962. Second, the heights were all on our side of the undemarcated LAC and the occupation gave the Indian Army the distinct operational and tactical advantage of overlooking the Moldo garrison where the headquarters of the PLA exists—a most disadvantageous situation for the Chinese force. Third, the PLA had sufficient troops to deploy in the areas where it had planned to man transgressions along the LAC but insufficient reserves to respond to contingencies; for that it would need to redeploy troops from one sub sector to the other. In other words, on 29–30 August 2020, the PLA was almost exactly in the situation that the Indian Army was when the Fingers complex got transgressed north of Pangong Tso.
The PLA was angry as it was caught napping. It made a few noises by bringing some troops from the Moldo area (right opposite our Chushul area) to threaten our positions with improvised weapons of the Galwan variety. By that time, Indian troops were past masters and psychologically prepared for such an eventuality; they stood their ground without further provocation. For a serious response of a tactical variety, the PLA had to get troops from the north bank, travel almost 12 hours for the 180 kilometres and swing around the lake to get to the south bank where Moldo exists. It was too late; the Indian Army had already consolidated on the Kailash Range heights and only a deliberate counter-attack (an act amounting to war) could evict it from that position of advantage.
Probably seeing red and seething under the pressure from higher headquarters, the PLA has decided to build a bridge across the Pangong Tso at a location where the lake is the narrowest, 17 kilometres from the LAC. The obvious advantage of the bridge is that it will cut the distance from Khurnak in the north to Rudok in the south, obviate a full swing around the lake and reduce the time for response to about two to three hours. The Chinese are constructing this using prefabricated concrete blocks and the classification appears to be good enough to sustain crossing by tanks. The road infrastructure in the Rudok area leading to the Moldo garrison is also being improved to cut response time.
Does the above mean that India has forever lost the capability to reoccupy the Kailash Range heights, which it withdrew from after the mutual disengagement in February 2021? The answer is a clear no and that is because the PLA yet does not have troops available to respond immediately should the Indian Army use stealth for occupation. The response time for the PLA has been cut down but it does not necessarily mean that it will respond with counter-attacks or other means of eviction. Any counter-actions by the PLA will mean an immediate progression from ‘No War No Peace’ to simply ‘Hot War’, but more troops would need to be inducted into the theatre for that. It is not certain the PLA actually wants such a situation with all that is happening around its vast borders and Xi Jinping wishing to approach the 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party from a position of perception of invincibility of the PLA and the nation.
A bridge can change a lot no doubt and in this case, the span near Khurnak is definitely strategic in nature. Yet there is another way of perceiving the PLA’s action and response as related to the construction of the bridge. In its wildest dreams, the PLA may never have imagined that an offensive quid pro quo action would be undertaken by the Indian Army right under its nose—one that would threaten even the headquarters of the PLA in Eastern Ladakh. It had earlier relegated the security of this area to border guards but ratcheted it up by bringing PLA units to friction points. All these years, it was willing to accept the 10–12 hour time span for moving from north to south Pangong Tso. Now it finds it too dangerous to risk; that is because the Indians have become unpredictable and offensive too. In other words, much against what is being written about the offensive nature of the Pangong Tso bridge, it actually amounts to a defensive action by the PLA as a result of the new threat that the Indian Army poses. China undertook ‘initiated friction’ as a strategy to coerce India when it commenced its actions in Ladakh in 2020. The Pangong Tso bridge reflects the Chinese intent towards being far more circumspect in the future if it really wishes to militarily coerce India.
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)
Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps. Now Chancellor, Central University of Kashmir