Foreign Policy Watch: India-China

Importance of the Pangong Tso Lake

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Pangong Tso Lake

Mains level : India-China border skirmishes and their impacts on bilateral relations

(Note: No higher resolution is available for the image)

The recent incidents at the Pangong Tso lake area between Indian and Chinese soldiers on the LAC involve a picturesque lake, mountains, helicopters, fighter jets, boats, eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation, fisticuffs and injuries.

Apart from the geo-physical significance of the Pangong Tso for prelims, other general information should be necessarily known to aspirants, particularly for Personality Tests.

The Pangong Tso Lake

  • Pangong Tso Lake in eastern Ladakh has often been in the news, most famously during the Doklam standoff, when a video of the scuffle between Indian and Chinese soldiers.
  • In the Ladakhi language, Pangong means extensive concavity, and Tso is a lake in Tibetan.
  • Pangong Tso is a long narrow, deep, endorheic (landlocked) lake situated at a height of more than 14,000 ft in the Ladakh Himalayas.
  • The western end of Tso lies 54 km to the southeast of Leh. The 135 km-long lake sprawls over 604 sq km in the shape of a boomerang and is 6 km wide at its broadest point.
  • The brackish water lake freezes over in winter and becomes ideal for ice skating and polo.
  • The legendary 19th century Dogra general Zorawar Singh is said to have trained his soldiers and horses on the frozen Pangong lake before invading Tibet.

Tactical significance of the lake

  • By itself, the lake does not have major tactical significance.
  • But it lies in the path of the Chushul approach, one of the main approaches that China can use for an offensive into Indian Territory.
  • Indian assessments show that a major Chinese offensive if it comes, will flow across both the north and south of the lake.
  • During the 1962 war, this was where China launched its main offensive — the Indian Army fought heroically at Rezang La, the mountain pass on the southeastern approach to Chushul valley, where the Ahir Company of 13 Kumaon led by Maj. Shaitan Singh made its last stand.
  • Not far away, to the north of the lake, is the Army’s Dhan Singh Thapa post, named after Major Dhan Singh Thapa who was awarded the country’s highest gallantry award, the Param Vir Chakra.
  • Major Thapa and his platoon were manning Sirijap-1 outpost which was essential for the defence of Chushul airfield.

Connectivity in the region

  • Over the years, the Chinese have built motorable roads along their banks of the Pangong Tso.
  • At the People’s Liberation Army’s Huangyangtan base at Minningzhen, southwest of Yinchuan, the capital of China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, stands a massive to-scale model of this disputed area in Aksai Chin.
  • It points to the importance accorded by the Chinese to the area.
  • Even during peacetime, the difference in perception over where the LAC lies on the northern bank of the lake makes this contested terrain.
  • In 1999, when the Army unit from the area was moved to Kargil for Operation Vijay, China took the opportunity to build 5 km of a road inside Indian Territory along the lake’s bank.
  • From one of these roads, Chinese positions physically overlook Indian positions on the northern tip of the Pangong Tso Lake.

Fingers in the lake

  • The barren mountains on the lake’s northern bank, called the Chang Chenmo, jut forward in major spurs, which the Army calls “fingers”.
  • India claims that the LAC is coterminous with Finger 8, but it physically controls area only up to Finger 4.
  • Chinese border posts are at Finger 8, while it believes that the LAC passes through Finger 2.
  • Around six years ago, the Chinese had attempted a permanent construction at Finger 4 which was demolished after Indians strongly objected to it.
  • Chinese use light vehicles on the road to patrol up to Finger 2, which has a turning point for their vehicles.
  • If they are confronted and stopped by an Indian patrol in between, asking them to return, it leads to confusion, as the vehicles can’t turn back.
  • The Chinese have now stopped the Indian soldiers moving beyond Finger 2. This is an eyeball-to-eyeball situation which is still developing.

Confrontation on the water

  • On the water, the Chinese had a major advantage until a few years ago — their superior boats could literally run circles around the Indian boats.
  • But India purchased better Tampa boats some eight years ago, leading to a quicker and more aggressive response.
  • Although there are well-established drills for disengagement of patrol boats of both sides, the confrontations on the waters have led to tense situations in the past few years.
  • The Chinese have moved in more boats — called the LX series — in the lake after the tensions which rose in the area from last month.
  • The drill for the boats is agreed upon by the two sides, as per the Standard Operating Procedure.

Out of bounds for tourists

  • Indian tourists are only allowed up to Spangmik village, around 7 km into the lake. This is where a famous movie climax was shot.
  • In fact, tourists were not allowed at all at Pangong Tso until 1999, and even today, you need to obtain an Inner Line Permit from the office of the Deputy Commissioner at Leh.
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Anil Gupta
3 months ago

Indian tourists with inner line permit are allowed after Spangmic covering Man and Marak villages to chushul and further upto Changthang area Hanle and tsomoriri etc. Information is very useful and explained in simple language.

Anil Gupta
3 months ago

Found the map very useful. It would have been better if u had labelled finger 1 to 8 at Pangong Tso.