The Ministry of External Affairs has confirmed that China is building a second bridge on the Pangong Tso lakenot far from the site of one of the most intense friction points in the border standoff that began in May 2020.
The second bridge, which is still under construction, is a permanent structure, sources told The Indian Express. A previous bridge, which came up around January, seemed to have been built to facilitate work on the new one. After completion, this second bridge will allow swift movement of armoured vehicles between the north and the south banks of Pangong Tso.
Where are these bridges located?
After building the first bridge – about 400 meters long and 8 metres wide – on the Pangong Tso close to the friction areas on the north bank of the lake and the Chushul sub-sector on the south bank, China started constructing a broader bridge next to it a few months back.
The site of the bridge is around 20 km east of Finger 8 on the lake’s north bank – which is where the Line of Actual Control (LAC) passes, according to India. However, the actual distance by road is more than 35 km between the bridge site and Finger 8.
The construction site is just east of an old ruin called Khurnak Fort, where China has major frontier defense bases. China calls it Rutong Country. It has a frontier defense company at the Khurnak Fort, and further east, a water squadron at Banmozhang.
Although it is being built in territory that is under China’s control since 1958, the exact point is just west of India’s claim line, which means India considers it its own territory. The Ministry of External Affairs last week stated that it considers the area as illegally occupied by China.
Pangong Tso is a 135-km long landlocked lake. India has around 45 km of Pangong Tso under its control, while China has more than two-thirds. The site of the new bridge is near the halfway mark of the boomerang-shaped lake.
How will these constructions help China?
The main objective of the bridges is a faster movement of troops, including mechanised forces, heavy weapons, and military vehicles. The bridges are at one of the narrowest points on the lake, close to the LAC.
The constructions are a direct outcome of the ongoing standoff that began in May 2020, which catalysed the construction of infrastructure by both sides across the entire 3,488-km long LAC.
Why this location, though?
The location has to do with an operation by the Indian Army in August 2020, which allowed India to gain some leverage in negotiations to resolve the standoff. Indian troops outmanoeuvred the People’s Liberation Army to occupy the heights of Kailash Range in the Chushul sub-sector on the south bank of Pangong Tso.
The positions allowed India to dominate the strategically significant Spanggur Gap, which could be used to launch an offensive as China had done in 1962. Also, India got a direct view of China’s Moldo Garrison. This was a cause of immense concern for the Chinese.
After this operation, the Indian Army also readjusted on the lake’s north bank to position themselves above Chinese positions. The north bank was one of the first friction points to have come up in May 2020.
During this jestling, warning shots were fired for the first time by both sides, a first in over four decades. Also at certain areas on the south bank, troops and tanks were positioned just a few hundred meters apart, creating a dangerous eyeball-to-eyeball standoff.
The two sides finally agreed to pull back troops from these areas in February last year after spending a harsh winter on those heights.
China is building these bridges close to the theater of action. Sources suggest that the new bridge will allow Chinese troops to slash travel time from around 12 hours at the moment to around four hours.
What has been India’s response?
Officially, India has said that the site of the bridge is under illegal occupation of China, and that it is monitoring all Chinese activity closely.
MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said on Friday (May 20), “We have seen reports of a bridge being constructed by China on Pangong Lake alongside its earlier bridge. Both these bridges are in areas that have continued to be under the illegal occupation of China since the 1960s. We have never accepted such illegal occupation of our territory, nor have we accepted the unjustified Chinese claim or such construction activities.”
About India upgrading and developing infrastructure along the northern border, former Army Chief General MM Naravane had said in January:
“We are in a much better position where we were a year and half ago,” adding that “whatever China is doing, is being equally matched by our side”, and that India is in no way “lagging behind as far as infra is concerned.”
In 2021, over 100 projects were completed by the Border Roads Organization (BRO) in the border areas, most of which were close to the China border. India is also improving surveillance along the LAC, apart from building new airstrips and landing areas.
What is the current situation in the standoff?
While several friction points have been resolved, discussions are on regarding three remaining areas.
India and China pulled their troops back from Patrolling Point (PP) 14 in Galwan Valley in June 2020, after the fatal clashes.
Then they disengaged from the north and south banks of Pangong Tso in February 2021, and from PP17A near Gogra Post in August. But negotiations have been stuck since then.
The Corps Commanders from both sides have met 15 times since the standoff began, and the last meeting was in March.
The dates for the next round of talks are still awaited.
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China has a Platoon-sized strength of PLA troops on the Indian side of the LAC at PP15 in the Hot Springs area. Also, some so-called “Chinese civilians” have pitched tents on the Indian side of the Charding Nalla, which marks the LAC in Demchok.
Further north, closer to the Karakoram Pass, Chinese troops continue to block Indian soldiers in an area called the Bottleneck in Depsang Plain, disallowing them to access India’s traditional patrolling limits at PP10, PP11, PP11a, PP12 and PP13.
Both sides have over 50,000 troops each in the region, in the depth areas, along with additional air defense assets, artillery tanks and other weapons.