Safeguarding Indian interests

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Safeguarding Indian interests

The PLA road in Shaksgam Valley is much more than just ‘provocative’. India needs to start talks with China, tone down the Army’s rhetoric and use the NSA route to accept Pakistan’s plan to offer CBMs

In a show of militaristic strength, the Chief of Army Staff, General Bipin Rawat, recently upbraided Pakistan and China three days in a row. His warning to Pakistan to stop infiltration was backed by targeting of Pakistani soldiers rather than the terrorists by long-range artillery. He signalled more surgical strikes, if needed. He also said that the Army’s attention would shift to Chinese border since the Doklam dispute between China and Bhutan was unresolved.

Three observations on General Rawat’s statements are noteworthy: First, he spoke with full backing of the Government. Secondly, China and Pakistan were quick to take umbrage. China accused General Rawat of upending peace on the border. Pakistan, on the other hand, increased infiltration, summoned the Indian Deputy High Commissioner, JP Singh, to protest against India’s “incessant cross-border firing” and cautioned the United States on an escalation of hostilities.

And thirdly, with both India and Pakistan using artillery in direct (line of sight distances) and even indirect mode (for longer ranges), it is fair to say that the November 2003 ceasefire has finally gone up in smoke or at least nearly so. To revive the ceasefire, there were reports that Pakistan was considering confidence building measures including ending use of high calibre (artillery) weapons and suggesting formal talks between the two director generals of military operations.

That said, it would be naïve to believe that China and Pakistan, which give importance to military power, would end matters here. Just when India was silently congratulating itself, news came that China had built a 36-km road and military posts in the Shaksgam Valley (north Ladakh) located north of the Siachen glacier in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, which was illegally ceded by Pakistan to China in 1963.

Showing Google Earth imagery, The Print, a digital news magazine, reported that the road, which was constructed after the Doklam face-off, had also been connected with two Chinese military posts outside the Shaksgam Valley. Asked to comment, former northern Army Commander, Lt Gen DS  Hooda said that since Shaksgam Valley is disputed, “The Chinese military presence in the area could be considered provocative.”

This is putting it mildly. India has a major military threat — short of war — looming on the horizon in north Ladakh, the only place where China and Pakistan have a physical link-up. To understand its magnitude, it is essential to know the topography of this area.

The southern end of Shaksgam Valley is close to the northern tip of the Karakoram (KK) Pass. The Karakoram Range (held by China), which is more formidable than the Great Himalayas, can be crossed only through two prominent passes. The KK Pass (18,176 feet) in the east, is more difficult, but is the shortest route from Leh (Ladakh) to Xinjiang (China). The other pass on the Karakoram Range is Khunjerab (15,397 feet) in the north, across which the famed Karakoram Highway runs; the China Pakistan Economic Corridor is on this highway. The distance between the Khunjerab and Karakoram Passes is a mere 18 kilometres.

For India, the shorter route from Leh to Xinjiang (also called the Old Silk route) traverses from Leh to Base Camp Siachen to Sasoma to Sasser Ridge — with the crossing at Sasser la (la means mountain pass) — leading to Daulat-Beg-Oldi (BDO) onto KK pass and then China. DBO is 16 kilometres south of the KK Pass. The Sasser Ridge roughly separates the Siachen Glacier from east Ladakh.

In east Ladakh, India has troops at Burtse (adjacent to Depsang plains where Chinese had come and stayed for three weeks in April-May 2013) near DBO. The troops here are mostly maintained by air since in the absence of a road, it takes Indian troops anything from 18 to 25 days to trudge the treacherous track along Sasoma, Sasser La to Chung Tash, Margo and on to Burtse. Until April 2013, there were about 120 troops at Burtse, which after the Depsang incident, have been increased to battalion (1,200) strength.

The Indian Army is trying to open up a road route to reach DBO so that troops do not have to walk with loads. It runs from Tangtse northwards to Darbuk and then goes along the Shyok River, crossing it at two points — one downstream and the other upstream — to finally reach DBO. This, according to reports, will only be ready by 2022.

Given such topography, extreme weather conditions at altitudes of 18,000 feet and more, and lack of infrastructure on the Indian side, it is a mammoth task for the Indian Army to guard DBO and the surrounding areas, including the Depsang Plain. Called the Sub-Sector North (SSN), this area is extremely vulnerable to ingress by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as they have roads on their side right up to the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

The PLA has a post on the KK pass, which is connected by road to its battalion garrison (1,000 troops) about five to six km from the KK pass. The PLA post provides good observation into most of Ladakh. To the west of the PLA post is Teram Shehr glacier, from where the north and central portions of the Siachen glacier (held by Indian troops) are in full view.

When the Shaksgam Valley did not have the road, the Pakistan Army lacked direct access to the Teram Shehr glacier. Now, with the road and military posts in the Shaksgam Valley and till the LAC, and given the interoperability between Pakistan and China, there is a direct link-up of the two Armies at Teram Shehr glacier and the LAC. Against this backdrop, the new military options for Pakistan and China are as follows:

With the ceasefire (it came into being along the Line of Control and the Siachen glacier) no longer holding on the LoC, what stops the Pakistan Army from using artillery on the Siachen glacier accurately with direct observation from the Teram Shehr glacier in the north? What if, as a consequence of Pakistani firings, kerosene pipelines (which are the life-line for troops) strewn across the Siachen glacier burst? Even when the Indian Army stocks rations on the Siachen glacier for 270 days, it could become untenable for Indian troops to stay-put in northern and central glacier, partially or fully.

This is not all. If PLA soldiers are killed or injured by Indian retaliatory firing, China might exercise military options short of war. With the Indian Army committed to salvage the glacier, the PLA Special Forces could occupy Fukche and even DBO advanced landing grounds close to the LAC. It will not be possible for the Indian Army to dislodge PLA forces from the advanced landing grounds without serious escalation.

Given this, the PLA road in Shaksgam Valley is much more than ‘provocative’. India needs to start immediate talks with China, tone down the rhetoric from its Army and use the National Security Advisor route to accept the two CBMs that Pakistan is planning to offer.

(The writer is editor FORCE newsmagazine)

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