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Beyond Shaksgam – China Scorching Himalayas Blatantly
Lt Gen PC Katoch, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SC (Retd) @

1Barely two months after the India-China Doklam standoff was peacefully resolved, satellite images appeared in media on August 28, 2017, of continuing Chinese build-up close to the contested point on Doklam plateau. PLA units having heavy and lethal equipment not noted in the past in this region; poised for quick escalation of matters at a time of its choosing. Images of September 6, 2017, showed 2,000-3,000 PLA soldiers (possible Brigade) deployed north of Yadong town. Though well camouflaged, a HQ, logistics unit, air defence artillery and a mechanized unit were discernable. The MEA said that there was no change from the status quo at the face off site, but the imagery pertained to the Yadong County of Tibet bordering Bhutan, depicts that they are within two hours striking distance from the Doklam flashpoint. 2 It may be recalled that in constructing a road in the Doklam area towards the Bhutanese Army camp at Zomphiri, China blatantly violated the Bhutan-China written agreements, which states that pending final boundary settlement, peace and tranquility be maintained along the boundary, and both sides refrain from unilaterally altering the status on ground. Bhutan had to issue demarche to China for the flagration. 3 China timed the deliberate road construction activity to the Doklam Plateau with Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the US, probably hoping Indian Army would not come to Bhutan’s assistance.

China may not have agreed to fall back from the Doklam standoff but the possibility of Prime Minister Narendra Modi not attending the forthcoming BRICS summit chaired by China would have caused embarrassment to President Xi Jinping.  Especially after failing to snare India in joining the CPEC, where China did not bother to consult India before taking up development projects in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, which has been actually Indian Territory. That a PLA brigade is based close to Skardu, PLA troops are fortifying Pakistani bunkers on the border with India, Pakistan has leased out Gilgit-Baltistan to China for 50 years, and China is openly sheltering radical Pakistani mullahs from being branded terrorists at the UN are well known fact, which prove China’s malafide intentions towards India. Even during the Doklam standoff, China was intruding across the LAC in Barahoti area in the Central Sector both, on foot and by helicopter. The façade of friendliness shown by Beijing during the BRICS summit did not prevent China from continuing intruding across the LAC. 4 On December 28, 2017, Chinese civilians were caught constructing a road 1.25 km across the Indian side of the LAC in Tuting area of Arunachal Pradesh. Subsequently, on January 6, 2018 a flag meeting was held at the point of intrusion, to which Chinese personnel drove up. China claimed its construction workers “inadvertently” strayed into India’s side of LAC, which is a pack of lies. Any road construction by China along the LAC is undertaken by PLA – same as in Doklam area.  Also the fact that the point up to which the present intrusion took place had three feet of snow, indicates the PLA resolve. If the activity was not detected by chance, the road would have been developed further by many kilometers more. This time again, PLA perhaps did not expect to be detected and decided to withdraw. 

5India chose to play down the Tuting intrusion and on January 8, 2018, the Chief of Army Staff while stating the Chinese road construction issue had been resolved, also mentioned, “There is major reduction in the Chinese troop strength in the Doklam standoff area. Perhaps he was referring to the standoff point and not the above-mentioned brigade-sized PLA force, just two hours away. 6But fresh satellite imagery appeared on January 17, 2018, which showed PLA deployment close to last year’s face off, and the fact that it had not thinned down, is a cause of concern. Google Earth imagery shows concrete posts, seven helipads of 25m diameter, several dozen armoured vehicles, one-two mechanized regiments, two regiment worth tank-transporters; 100 plus B-vehicles; two- storey high observation tower-less than 10m from forward Indian Army trench that can observe our troop movement beyond Kupup; large number of fighting posts on almost every hillock on North Doklam plateau, consisting of double-layered communication trenches prepared for all round defence; new roads to cover the North Doklam plateau, with communication trenches running along them; four large bulldozers and four tippers indicating intention of pursuing road construction beyond the contested point.

7China justified its massive construction activities in the Doklam area as "legitimate" and aimed at improving the lives of its troops and the people living on its own territory. Asked about reports citing satellite imagery of a Chinese military complex in the area, Lu Kang, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said, "I have also noted the relevant report. I don't know who offered such kind of photos.” Apparently, China bulldozed its way through and with Xi Jinping calling for the PLA to be ready for war, may be looking for another standoff with India to capture balance Doklam, not bothering about bilateral or trilateral talks under the euphuism that the whole plateau is Chinese territory. Bhutan and India possibly decided not to contest the fresh PLA construction and deployments. On January 19, 2018, Brahma Chellaney, strategic thinker tweeted, “In 1950s, when China began seizing Aksai Chin – a highly strategic, Switzerland-sized plateau-Nehru denied such a move. Once its capture became complete, Nehru tried to belittle the plateau’s value: “not a blade of grass grows there.” Is India now in a similar denial mode on Doklam?” The logical answer would be yes in terms of North Doklam,but that may not be the end of the Doklam saga.

8Apparently, China has pulled out all the stops in realizing her territorial ambitions. On January 15, 2018, Satellite imageries showed, China is constructing a 36 km road and military posts in the strategic Shaksgam Valley, north of Siachen Glacier in POK, opening up an additional avenue of approach for Chinese troops along the LAC. It may be recalled that Pakistan had gifted the Shaksgam Valley (5180 sq km of Indian Territory) to China in 1963. China had then agreed that for the “disputed” Shaksgam Valley, she would negotiate in future with whoever wins the settlement of Kashmir issue. But then whole of POK is disputed and China has been showing Indian maps without Kashmir, and even Arunachal Pradesh. This activity has been going on simultaneous to the Doklam and Tuting provocations by China as the satellite imagery suggests that the road construction started in 2017 after the Doklam stand-off. No roads or posts can be seen in this area in satellite imagery of October 24, 2016. This new road is linked to two PLA posts ‘outside’ Shaksgam Valley. One of the posts is thought to be the headquarters of the PLA unit operating in the area. There are also at least two military posts seen in Shaksgam Valley; one at the northern end of Shaksgam Valley and second is 20 km to the south along the new road.  The base structure for a third post is apparently being prepared about 1.5 km southeast of the second post along the new road.

9A recent editorial in a national daily has derided the Indian Army Chief by saying that if our retaliatory artillery fire in POK kills Chinese soldiers, China would attack us. This is quite ridiculous. PLA soldiers have also been observed in the past on Pakistani posts and presently are also engaged in refurbishing Pakistani bunkers. Does that mean we should not engage these posts in retaliation? The writer also draws attention to China accusing the COAS of upending peace on the border – by the Chief merely saying that Army’s attention should shift to the northern borders? Apparently, the writer wants India not to take any umbrage of the naked provocations by China. He also asks if with the increased cross-border firing, the 2003 ceasefire agreement of November 2003 has gone up in smoke. He probably is late by a few years in asking that question and unaware that the DGMOs of India and Pakistan talk on the hotline on weekly basis, but Pakistan sitting in the lap of China is in no mood to curb terrorism and reduce tensions. He, however, does point out that India faces a serious China-Pakistan threat in Ladakh, and that China is occupying Karakoram (KK) Pass. The latter was suspected for long but successive Indian governments have been brushing it under the table by saying it was patrolled by ITBP regularly, which needs cross-checking. KK Pass does dominate Sub Sector North (SSN) held by India immediately south of KK Pass.

10Beyond this, the author’s speculation that with the road in Shaksgam Valley, Pakistani troops can reach the Teram Shehar Glacier, and take artillery shoots at Indian posts is grossly illogical. Getting to Teram Shehr Glacier from Shaksgam Valley implies one has to climb up to the Siachen Glacier and trudge through Indian Army posts to reach ‘Kumar Post’ at the junction with Teram Shehr Glacier. On the other hand, if coming down from KK Pass, enemy would have to tackle SSN and if successful, would be foolish to get on to the Teram Shehr Glacier. But even without the road coming up in Shaksgam Valley, India Army has been taking precautions against small enemy parties climbing on to Siachen Glacier in a bid to target fixed wing aircraft on air maintenance missions. With the road and posts coming up in Shaksgam Valley, increased threat would need to be taken into account. There is no doubt that Ladakh has been in crosshairs of China-Pakistan, including Siachen Glacier being enormous fresh water source. Water is one of China’s top priority and the very reason it took over Shaksgam Valley. The PLA brigade close to Skardu and PLA intrusions in Depsang plains do pose serious threat. In fact, opening up the Siachen question could well have been a CIA-ISI or US-China-Pakistan conspiracy in 1967 in the Lyndon B Johnson era, when US Defense Mapping Agency suddenly began to show India-Pak boundary on Tactical Pilotage Charts as proceeding from NJ9842 east-northeast to the KK Pass, on the China border without justification / documentation, cartographically giving entire Siachen-Saltoro area to Pakistan. Equally intriguing was the conduct of the now infamous Indo-Pak talks under UPA II government that recommended India to withdraw from the Saltoro Range. The Indian who recommended to the Atlantic Council of Ottawa military veterans had never served in Siachen as part of the Indian delegation, so it remains a mystery. It is also queer that the delegation never once visited Siachen, are to get briefed, despite, months of parleys with their Pakistani counterparts, under aegis the Atlantic Council of Ottawa.

Given the aggressive mood of China, it is not Ladakh alone that India should be worried about. China is likely to try multiple intrusions and standoffs along the entire LAC, particularly Arunachal Pradesh, notwithstanding the charade of peace homilies by Xi Jinping and Wang Yi. China maintains it does not recognize Arunachal Pradesh as part of India. Tuting may have been just the tip of the iceberg, with China knowing our border infrastructure is weak and attention of the hierarchy is riveted on next year general elections.  The world too needs to take cognizance how China has dealt with a peaceful country like Bhutan in complete disregard to written agreements with them. China will obviously take advantage of absence of requisite security framework in the Indo-Pacific, especially after successfully propping up North Korea as her nuclear proxy and subduing South Korea economically. However, affected countries including forums like the Quad, need to discuss how to deal with China, which has gone rogue, (even without a defence pact). During his recent visit to India, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in an interview with a newspaper that his country (Israel) and India "have some understanding" should India decide to unilaterally carry out combative action across the Line of Control against UN-designated terrorists. 11 Post India’s recent Agni-V ICBM launch, an article in China’s Global Post recommends China should enhance its presence in Indian Ocean to counter India’s missile tests. This is a message from the Chinese Government because all media in China is state controlled.

12 Interestingly, a Taiwanese strategist suggests procurement of 1000 medium-range missiles for US$1 billion by Taiwan, which could seal off some 30 PLA bases in event of war with China.  According to him, just two missiles could destroy China’s Three Gorges Dam. China maintains that any damage to one section will not affect other sections and that the dam could withstand a tactical nuclear strike because of its sheer size, which of course is debatable. Targeting infrastructure and dams (of which China has scores) is hardly a new concept. 13 During World War II, Operation Chastise was launched on 16-17 May 1943 against German by the British Air Force, using a purpose-built bouncing bomb. The Mohne and Edersee Dams were breached, causing catastrophic flooding of the Ruhr valley and villages in the Eder valley. The Sorpe Dam sustained minor damage but two hydroelectric stations were destroyed and several more damaged, factories and mines too were damaged and destroyed. Some 1600 persons drowned and despite repairs by Germans, production did not return to normal for next few months. This example is to highlight the need for innovativeness in war. 14 For that matter US Secretary of State Collin Powel reportedly said, “The boys in Teheran know Israel has 200 (nuclear weapons), all targeted on Tehran, and we have thousands.” Whether Collin Powel was exaggerating or not, this underscores the need for effective deterrence. China appears intent upon scorching through the Himalayas and can be expected to keep stabbing India in the back. India should be prepared for all contingencies.

Refences  

1Vinayak Bhat, ‘Exclusive: Chinese troops are amassed near Doklam plateau, satellite images show’, The Print, October 26, 2017, https://theprint.in/2017/10/26/exclusive-doklam-satellite-imagery-chinese-troops/

2Prakash Katoch, China’s T-junction standoff with Bhutan: Flexing muscles to annex land is nothing new for Beijing, First Post, June 29, 2017, http://www.firstpost.com/world/chinas-t-junction-stand-off-with-bhutan-flexing-muscle-to-annex-land-is-nothing-new-for-beijing-3759025.html

3Ibid.

4Prakash Katoch, ‘The Tuting Saga – what we should learn’, Indian Defence Review, January 16, 2018, http://www.indiandefencereview.com/news/the-tuting-saga-what-we-should-learn/

5Dinaker Peri, ‘Issue of Chinese road building in Arunahal Pradesh resolved, says Army Chief’, The Hindu, January 8, 2018, http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/india-china-hold-border-meet-over-tuting-incident/article22396628.ece

6Vinayak Bhat, ‘New trouble for India: China occupies North Doklam, with armoured vehicles & 7 helipads, The Print, January 17, 2018, https://theprint.in/2018/01/17/new-trouble-for-india-as-china-fully-occupies-doklam/

7‘China justifies infrastructure building in Doklam, The Times of India’, January 19, 2018, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/china-justifies-infrastructure-building-in-doklam/articleshow/62568526.cms

8Vinayak Bhat, ‘Fresh provocation: China’s building a 36-km long road in strategic J&K valley near Siachen, The Print, January 15, 2018, https://theprint.in/2018/01/15/china-building-a-36-km-long-road-valley-siachen/

9Praveen Sawhney, ‘Safeguarding Indian Interests’ The Pioneer, January 18, 2018, http://www.dailypioneer.com/columnists/oped/safeguarding-indian-interests.html

10Ibid.

11Yin Han, ‘China should enhance presence in Indian Ocean to counter India’s missile tests: experts’, Global Times, January 18, 2018, http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1085585.shtml

12‘Two missiles could blow up Three Gorges: strategists’, Asia Times, January 15, 2018, http://www.atimes.com/article/two-missiles-can-blow-up-chinas-three-gorges-dam-taiwan-strategist-claims/

13‘Operation Chastise’, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Chastise

14Dawn Stover, ‘Does Israel really have 200 nuclear weapons, or was Collin Powell exaggerating?’, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’, September 10, 2016, https://thebulletin.org/does-israel-really-have-200-nuclear-weapons-or-was-colin-powell-exaggerating9896

 

@Lt Gen PC Katoch, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SC (Retd) is a veteran Special Forces Officer of the Indian Army. He is also a Distinguished Fellow of the United Service Institution of India.

(Article uploaded on 25 Jan, 2018)

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation that he belongs to or of the USI.

CENTRE FOR UNITED NATIONS PEACEKEEPING (CUNPK)

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