Foreign Policy Watch: India-China

Delinking Depsang from the ongoing Ladakh border crisis is worrying

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Aksai Chin

Mains level : Paper 2- Border conflict with China

Context

In a recent television interview, the Indian Army Chief, General M.M. Naravane, argued that “out of the five or six friction points (in Ladakh), five have been solved”.

Friction points in Ladakh

  • ‘Friction point’ are the points of Chinese ingress into hitherto India-controlled territory in Ladakh, where this control is exercised by the Army and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) through regular patrols to the claimed areas.
  • These ‘friction points’ are Depsang, Galwan, Hot Springs, Gogra, North bank of Pangong Tso, Kailash Range and Demchok.
  • By asserting that only one of the friction points is remaining to be resolved —  Hot Springs or PP15, Army Chief implicitly ruled out Depsang as an area to be resolved.
  • This attempt to delink the strategically important area of Depsang from the ongoing Ladakh border crisis is worrying.

Significance of Depsang

  • Depsang is an enclave of flat terrain located in an area the Army classifies as Sub-Sector North (SSN), which provides land access to Central Asia through the Karakoram Pass.
  • The Army has always identified Depsang plains as where it finds itself most vulnerable in Ladakh, devising plans to tackle the major Chinese challenge.
  • SSN’s flat terrain of Depsang, Trig Heights and DBO — which provides direct access to Aksai Chin — is suited for mechanised warfare but is located at the end of only one very long and tenuous communication axis for India.
  • China, in turn, has multiple roads that provide easy access to the area.
  • This leaves SSN highly vulnerable to capture by the PLA, with a few thousands of square kilometres from the Karakoram Pass to Burtse, likely to be lost.
  • Nowhere else in Ladakh is the PLA likely to gain so much territory in a single swoop.
  • SSN lies to the east of Siachen, located between the Saltoro ridge on the Pakistani border and the Saser ridge close to the Chinese border.
  • On paper, it is the only place where a physical military collusion can take place between Pakistan and China — and the challenge of a two-front war can become real in the worst-case scenario.
  • If India loses this area, it will be nearly impossible to launch a military operation to wrest back Gilgit-Baltistan from Pakistan.

Dangers of delinking Depsang

  • Invalidation of Indian claims: The biggest danger of delinking Depsang from the current border crisis in Ladakh, however, is of corroborating the Chinese argument, which invalidates the rightful Indian claim over a large swathe of territory. 
  • In sparsely populated areas like Ladakh, with limited forward deployment of troops, the only assertion of territorial claims is by regular patrolling. 
  • By arguing that the blockade at Y-junction predates the current stand-off — a ‘legacy issue’ that goes back years — the Chinese side can affirm that Indian patrols never had access to this area and thus India has no valid claim on the territory.

Conclusion

As was demonstrated by China in the aftermath of the 1962 War, there should be no holding back in painstakingly asserting one’s claims when it comes to safeguarding the territory.

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