Every year during winter, Ladakh is cut off from the rest of India due to heavy snowfall as well as the shutdown of a national highway that connects it to the Indian mainland.
This year, the people in this snow-bound region are facing heightened uncertainty. Cut off from India due to bad weather, they are also staring at a possible Chinese intrusion, with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) building a bridge across the Pangong Tso (Lake).
The Chinese are inching closer every day.
The bridge connects the North and South banks of the Pangong Tso and is expected to facilitate faster movement of PLA troops.
Hitherto, PLA soldiers needed to take a more circuitous route to commute between the PLA’s Kurnak Fort garrison on the North Bank and the Moldo garrison on the South Bank, a distance of around 200 km. It took them 12 hours to make this trip.
The new 500-meter-long bridge, which is located 25 km ahead of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Chinese held territory, will allow Chinese troops to cover this distance in just three or four hours.
Subedar Major (Honorary) Captain Tashi Tsephel, a recipient of the Vir Chakra (a bravery award) who previously served in Chushul and Demchok, told The Diplomat that if the Chinese build the Pangong Tso Bridge up to Sarjab area (near Finger 8) it “would shorten travel by 12 hours.”
Understandably, Ladakhis living in the area are worried.
The China-India border is disputed in disputed in this region, and the LAC is the de facto border between the two countries. The western sector of this border in Ladakh has been very tense since May 2020, when it emerged that Chinese troops were intruding into territory under Indian control at several points — including Pangong Tso.
On June 14-15, the situation spiraled out of control when PLA troops, who were supposed to be pulling back at Galwan Valley under an agreement reached with the Indian Army, returned and beat up Indian soldiers with spiked rods. Around 20 Indian soldiers died in the clashes that night,
The clashes at Galwan Valley, the first time in several decades that blood was spilled along the LAC, was a turning point.
In the roughly 19 months since, the Indian and Chinese militaries have engaged in 14 rounds of talks, with mixed results. While disengagement of troops has been achieved from some “friction areas” like Galwan Valley, both banks of Pangong Tso, and Gogra Heights, the Chinese have refused to disengage from Hot Springs or even discuss the situation at Demchok and Depsang.
In fact some round of talks, including the just-concluded 14th round have ended without a breakthrough or even minimal progress. The 13th round in October ended with the two sides issuing angry statements.
Incidentally, Pangong Tso is among the “friction areas” where the two sides reached agreement on disengagement of troops.
For villagers living in Chushul, which lies south of the Pangong Lake, the disengagement brought some respite. However, that respite is all but over with the Chinese building a bridge across this lake’s north and south banks.
Local apprehensions over a Chinese intrusion are increasing every day, Konchok Stanzin, a councilor in the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council who represents Chushul, told The Diplomat. “It is high time that the Indian government increased its infrastructural build-up in the borderland and provided better facilities to people living in the border villages,” he said.
He pointed out that the Chinese encourage their pastoralists and provide them with facilities to cross into Indian territory with their livestock. This is to mark the territory as their own. In contrast, on the Indian side, local pastoralists are not able to access their own grazing areas due to heavy troop deployment, Stanzin said.
Apart from the uncertainty of an impending conflict, this situation has pushed Ladakhi pastoralists to unemployment.
China is said to be erecting two-story building and entire villages in its disputed areas with Bhutan. In November 2021, reports revealed Chinese construction of “a cluster of buildings in Arunachal Pradesh” and several villages around Doklam, a Bhutan-India-China trijunction area, which was the site of a 73-day Sino-Indian military standoff in 2017.
Such constructions are aimed at strengthening China’s claims over disputed territory.
In the western sector of the LAC, there is a visible increase in the number of Chinese tents, bunkers, and vehicles very close to border villages in Chushul, Khakted, and Merak. China’s pushing ahead with construction activity along disputed border is not just a threat to the Ladakhis but also to India’s national security, Stanzin said.
Tsephel pointed out that while the Chinese are improving their own connectivity to border areas, they object to India ramping up its road construction here. India “should raise objections and halt their constructions too,” he said.
In Ladakh, soldiers are deployed at altitudes ranging between 14,000 – 18,000 feet. During winter, the average temperature is around minus 20 degrees Celsius and sometimes plunges to a low of minus 40 degrees Celsius.
With disengagement of troops stalemated, soldiers are enduring another miserable winter watching the borders. While PLA officials talk disengagement with their Indian counterparts, Chinese soldiers are speeding up construction of the Pangong Tso Bridge.
In normal times, a bridge is welcome as it improves travel and trade, but the Pangong Tso bridge is different. For Chushul’s residents the future is tense.