Pangong lake - standoff point
Pangong lake in Ladakh (file photo). Photograph by Rayan Naqash.

Last Saturday, Konchok Stanzin was alarmed by the sight of “about 100-150” Indian army trucks moving towards the Pangong Lake on the border between India and China in eastern Ladakh. The two countries are currently locked in an intense standoff amid reports of Chinese incursions.

Mr. Stanzin is the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) elected councillor of Chushul constituency, whose eight villages are along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and himself a resident of the Lukung village, two-kilometers away from the picturesque lake. He was on his way to Leh when he spotted the army movement.

Speaking to The Kashmir Walla over the phone from Leh, Mr. Stanzin said that “China is currently in control of at least four fingers”. Five other residents of eastern Ladakh’s border region that The Kashmir Walla spoke to made similar claims. The chain of spurs overseeing the Pangong Lake are known as the “Eight Fingers”, each hill being one finger; it is here that the current standoff is the most intense.

The 33-year-old councillor has heard of “frequent small standoffs” at the disputed borders of the region but this time, he said, local residents were worried that the situation was more serious. The panic was reinforced earlier this week, when the only mobile phone service in the eastern region, the state-run BSNL, had suddenly stopped.

Tension in south Asia, however, has been mounting since last August when New Delhi unilaterally abrogated the limited autonomy and statehood of the Jammu and Kashmir region—that is claimed by India and Pakistan but both countries controlling parts of the region along with China. Not only did India extend its direct rule over the region, it also carved out Ladakh – a portion of which is controlled by China – as a separate federally governed territory.

Underplaying China

A day after J-K was brought under New Delhi’s direct control, India’s home minister Amit Shah freshly asserted the Indian position on J-K, reiterating its claims on territories administered by Pakistan and China. Mr Shah had said that “both Indian and J-K constitutions also say that the state is an integral part of India and this gives us the right to form laws for the state, which includes PoK and Aksai-Chin.” 

The Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Hua Chunying, responded with a stern statement. “The recent unilateral revision of domestic laws by the Indian side continues to undermine China’s territorial sovereignty, which is unacceptable and will not have any effect,” she had said.

Ms. Hua further added that China has always opposed “India’s inclusion of Chinese territory” and warned India “to be cautious in its words and actions on the boundary issue, strictly abide by the relevant agreements reached between the two sides and avoid any move that further complicates the boundary issue.”

The bifurcation [and formation of Ladakh UT without legislature] has backfired for us.

China’s stakes in the J-K region are largely ignored by the national discourse in India. Nawang Rigzin Jora, the president of Ladakh’s Congress unit, links the current standoff to New Delhi extending its direct control over J-K. “China has been more aggressive after the abrogation [of erstwhile state’s special status],” he told The Kashmir Walla. “China has been intruding for years, but it was only in meters. This time, they have intruded kilometers. It is certainly an unprecedented situation.”

In addition to the increasing aggressiveness by China, India’s other neighbour Nepal has also upped its ante against New Delhi over boundary issues. As such Mr. Jora said he was unable to comprehend “what [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi has achieved for India’s foreign relations in the last six years?”

Acknowledging that the demand for Union Territory status came from within Ladakh, Mr. Jora said that the absence of a legislature and elected representatives of the region had further dented New Delhi’s credibility. His thoughts were shared by Sajjad Kargili, from the adjacent Kargil district, who unsuccessfully contested the 2019 general elections with the backing of multiple regional parties.

Earlier, elected representatives from J-K lended legitimacy to the claims of the Union government at global forums “but unfortunately, we don’t have elected representatives anymore”. “The bifurcation [and formation of Ladakh UT without legislature] has backfired for us,” he said.

The bifurcation of J-K, said Mr. Kargili, has been more detrimental to Ladakh than the revocation of the special status. “India raised voices for Gilgit-Baltistan, which is very crucial for China,” he added. Last month, New Delhi had strongly opposed a move by Pakistan and China to build a major hydropower plant in Gilgit Baltistan evoking an even stronger response from China. 

A botched up Foreign Policy?

The abrogation of J-K’s autonomy last year has seemingly given fresh impetus to China’s provocations. “It is quite likely that the Article 370 repeal played some role as a driver of China’s provocations in Ladakh,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director for the Asia program at the Wilson Center in Washington D. C. “I doubt it was the sole factor but still, given how unhappy Beijing has been about the Article 370 move, it is likely a part of Beijing’s broader thinking.”

For Beijing, Mr. Kugelman said, “there is something to be said for pushing back against New Delhi’s 370 move but also against India’s increasingly sharp and frequent threats to reclaim the part of Kashmir administered by Pakistan.” 

We have said that we’ll capture Gilgit-Baltistan and recapture Aksai-Chin, but China is very sensitive to all these things.

Former army officer Lt. General H S Panag, who has served as the General Officer Commanding the Indian Army’s Northern Command and Central Command in his career spanning over four decades, expressed similar thoughts but added that India was “caught off-guard”. 

China’s stakes in the region have increased manifold owing to its flagship investment of over $60 billion under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) passing through territories of J-K administered by Pakistan. “Disputed territory or not, CPEC is a reality, and is a part of China’s prestigious project,” said Lt. Gen. (retd) Panag. “We have said that we’ll capture Gilgit-Baltistan and recapture Aksai-Chin, but China is very sensitive to all these things.”

The parliamentary rhetoric of the union home minister, Mr. Shah, of capturing Gilgit-Baltistan administered by Pakistan and recapturing Aksai-Chin, the part of J-K administered by China, could be a major factor, as per Lt. Gen. (retd) Panag.

Mr. Shah had also claimed that he is willing to give up his life to recapture Pakistan-administered-Jammu and Kashmir. In doing so, Lt. Gen. (retd) Panag said, the Modi government’s domestic policy has “transgressed” into India’s foreign policy. “Those statements [by Mr. Shah] were crudely made.” 

Lt. Gen. (retd) Panag observed that China’s provocations were not tactical but a strategic move with the aim of enforcing its hegemony over India. He added that China is keeping border tensions alive “because of the fact that there is asymmetry in India and China’s capabilities, both economic and military, that it leads to our embarrassment and humiliation.”

Ladakh standoff map
Map showing standoff points between India and China in Ladakh. Graphic by The Kashmir Walla

Difficult bargains

Since the standoff began, India has moved at least sixty Bofors artillery guns from Leh town to the forward positions along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The deployment of heavy weaponry by India came after satellite images confirmed significant presence of Chinese artillery that had Indian positions within its striking range. The images showed at least sixteen tanks and construction equipment as well. 

Chinese intrusions are a regular affair during the summer months. The intrusion this time, however, is unprecedented as People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops have crossed over from multiple points on the border, some reportedly reaching three to four kilometers inside Indian territory. 

China was doing an exercise apparently and some troops had moved. RAW didn’t come to know this had happened.

The intrusions have been reported from at least three spots: the Galwan river valley, the Hot Springs area, and the northern bank of the 135 kilometers long Pangong Lake, of which about ninety kilometers are in permanent Chinese control. As of now, the councillor Mr. Stanzin said that the Indian Army was only allowing local residents to move beyond the Chang La pass, about 150 kilometers from the Pangong lake.  

On 6 June, Lieutenant General rank officers of both armies were scheduled for talks as the standoff continues. However, Lt. Gen. (retd) Panag said that the talks were meaningless if focused on tactical levels and not strategic. “China hasn’t done all this to come and go back,” he said. “China will extract concessions, in terms of how many troops India can position there and what border infrastructure India can build there and what India can’t do.”  

The former general heavily came down on India’s external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). “Firstly, China was doing an exercise apparently and some troops had moved. RAW didn’t come to know this had happened. Once they came closer, we didn’t see what they were trying to do,” he said. “Our [drones] and satellite imagery, everything failed.” 

Even as BJP celebrates the abrogation of J-K’s special status, the larger question remains if it has put more at stake. In the current situation, Lt. Gen. (retd) Panag said that any scope of a return to the status quo would be projected as a victory over China. “Even if India gives up on border infrastructure and strength of troops,” the government will declare a victory. “But what concessions it gets to foreign policy and the strategic realm of external relations will take a long time to know.”

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