In a little over a fortnight from now, the standoff between Indian and Chinese troops along the Line of Actual Control in eastern Ladakh will be a year old. Eleven rounds of military discussions later, it is still to be resolved, with the Chinese reluctant to return to troop locations before the start of the standoff.
The Sunday Express has learnt that on April 9, during the last round of talks at the Corps Commander-level, China refused to pull back its troops from Hot Springs and Gogra Post which, along with Depsang Plains, remain the friction points between the two sides — Indian and Chinese troops and armoured columns had disengaged on the north and south banks of Pangong Tso and the Kailash range in February.
A highly placed source, involved in decision-making all of 2020, told The Sunday Express that at Patrolling Point 15 and PP-17A in Hot Springs and Gogra Post, the Chinese “had agreed earlier” to pull back troops but “later refused to vacate”. In the recent talks, according to the source, China said India “should be happy with what has been achieved”.
At PP15 and PP17A, the source said, the current presence of Chinese troops is of “platoon strength”, down from the “company strength” earlier — an Indian Army platoon comprises 30-32 soldiers while a company consists of 100-120 personnel.
“For movement there, you don’t require paved roads, you can move on gravel tracks. There, the reaction capability is faster,” the source said, adding that “they are much inside the Indian side”.
At Pangong Tso, though there is temporary suspension of patrolling by the two sides between Finger 4 and Finger 8 on the north bank, the source pointed out that India had not been able to reach Finger 8, which it says marks the LAC, for two-three years before the start of the standoff.
The situation at the Depsang Plains pre-dates the standoff. Indian forces, the source said, have not been able to access their traditional patrolling limits since 2013.
The Depsang Plains issue, the source said, was added to the military commander talks “later”.
“Nothing happened in Depsang during this entire crisis. In Depsang, they (the Chinese) have been coming across and blocking our patrols at a number of these patrol points.” Chinese troops, the source said, “come every day in their (Dongfeng) Humvees, and just block that passage”.
“We have to be clear, we are not on solid footing as far as the alignment (of the LAC) is concerned” in Depsang. Indian troops, the source said, are being blocked in Depsang “since before 2013 as well and after that”.
“We were not able to reach our Limit of Patrolling… we used to go and access some of the patrolling points… there were selective patrolling points till where we had tracks”. But after 2013, China “built tracks, they had better connectivity, so they were blocking our movement”.
“Depsang has been added to the friction areas so that it gets resolved. As of April 2020, the status quo has not changed in Depsang. It is an old issue, but we added that. Initially, it was not even being discussed. Around the fourth-fifth round (of talks), we thought let’s get this resolved as well. We felt Depsang could be the next flashpoint. That was our assessment. Why not get that resolved as well,” the source said.
Even during the height of the standoff last year, the Chinese, the source said, were “not organised” for combat except in the Pangong Tso region where there was “some deployment” on the north bank and in the Kailash range and “with their strength, they were actually trying to intimidate”.
India had told its Army formations on the ground that the FOL (Fuel, Oil and Lubricant) dumps “all along the Shyok Valley roads, they have to be dug down” and other infrastructure built, “so if tomorrow any firing starts, you can’t be caught in the open”.
According to the source, there was talk initially that one reason why China diverted its forces to the LAC in the region last year was India’s building of its infrastructure with the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie (DSDBO) road.
This, the source said, was even discussed at the level of the China Study Group, the apex body for China-related decisions, where talks considered multiple geopolitical factors.
Yet China, the source said, never raised the road issue during the military talks.
“It was a planned move, and was not done at the local level, unlike previous incidents. They had come in at multiple locations. It was a well-planned operation and was different,” the source said.
On the much-debated intelligence failure in the run-up to the Chinese transgressions, the source maintained “there was no intelligence failure”.
Early last year, the Army, the source said, concluded that the number of transgressions in the preceding months had been much more all along Sikkim and eastern Ladakh. It also made note of China’s actions in the South China Sea.
Around March 2020, the source said, “there was a paper by the Military Intelligence… forecasting that the activity level of the Chinese along the LAC is likely to remain as per the trend line”. But it was revised, the source said, as the “events elsewhere did not support this conclusion” and it mentioned that “we have to be prepared for an adverse situation which can be created by the Chinese along the LAC and the formations have to be sensitised”.
In “early April” 2020, the Directorate General of Military Intelligence and the Directorate General of Military Operations issued advisories to all commands along the northern border.
Every year, the source said, the Chinese go to the Tibetan plateau for summer military training, and “these training areas are all along the Western Highway” which is around 150-200 km from the LAC at its closest.
From the Western Highway, there are axial roads to the LAC. “We had picked up movement right up to the Western Highway,” the source said, and “blobs” of Chinese positions were visible — other countries, including the US, had also shared images.
For the Chinese troops “to move up to the LAC or the launchpads is a matter of less than 24 hours in some cases, or 36 hours” and “that is precisely what happened at that point in time,” the source said.
“We were monitoring… where their formations are sitting… After that, they came forward. Now that is at the strategic level, their intent, that they wanted to do this, that was a gap.” Had India known “that they are going to do this, then obviously we would have also mobilised earlier,” the source said, pointing out that mobilisation along the highway was the same as previous years.
“If somebody is coming across and you see a build-up,” the source said, “the reserve formations should have moved”. The gap in being prepared for such action, the source said, was at the lower level.