China’s ongoing construction of a broad bridge on the Pangong Tso (lake) in eastern Ladakh, which is in “occupied territory”, is being closely monitored by India.
More about the bridge
The construction of the second bridge which is the main bridge according to sources in the security establishment had just started and the satellite images in January this year were related to a bailey bridge to support the main one.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a source in the security establishment indicated that the construction of the smaller bridge started last October and continued until January 2022 and restarted in March before it was completed in April.
Is it a second bridge?
No. “It is more like a support bridge which will help in the construction of a broader and a bigger one. And the height is lower than the earlier one and the patrol boats cannot pass under it.” Adding, “This cannot be termed as a second bridge, as China follows this pattern in other places as well.”
Construction just started
According to the source quoted above, the construction material arrived last month, following which the construction started. The satellite imagery indicates cranes, piers, construction material etc.
As has been reported earlier, the bridge is connecting the north and south banks of Pangong Tso and would bring down the movement and transport time for PLA troops and equipment between the two sectors. Also, Financial Express Online had reported earlier that the induction of troops from the G219 highway is expected to come down by 130 km as the bridge is located around 25 km ahead of LAC.
The PLA garrison is located at Kurnak fort on the north bank and another on the south bank at Moldo and the distance between the two is around 200 km. The bridge, according to sources, is between the closest points on the two banks – 500 m., and the time they will take is around 3-4 hours compared to the previous 12 hours.
According to Kargil war veteran Maj Gen Ashok Kumar (retd) “When China made the first bridge on Pangong Tso linking its Northern and Southern side, it was analysed as a response to our Kailash Range action wherein the Chinese forces were unable to respond timely due to long circuitous routes needed to be traversed from the Northern side located military garrisons to the southern side of Pangong Tso where Kailash Range heights were captured by our valiant Armed Forces. It was emerging that this reactive action was probably intended to safeguard its own claimed area in case of any future conflict.”
The satellite imagery on the second bridge
“Satellite imagery based inputs on the second bridge on Pangong Tso now bring out an entirely different perspective altogether. It is now emerging that the first bridge was primarily built to move equipment to facilitate the construction of the second bridge which will be capable of moving armoured vehicles and other heavy equipment. While analysis of first bridge shows that it will be used for infantry based movement primarily to improve response time, the second bridge will be used by China to ferry its armoured vehicles, mechanised elements and heavy vehicles from the Northern bank to the Southern bank of the strategic Pangong Tso Lake,” Maj Gen Ashok Kumar adds.
MEA responds to queries related to second bridge on the Pangong Tso & talks with China
According to the official spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), Arindam Bagchi, “Regular talks with China are going on about the Line of Actual Control (LAC). India conveyed their expectation during talks with the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who was here in March, and our External Affairs Minister also directly explained about how the conversation had taken place and the issues discussed.”
On the reports about the bridge, the spokesperson said that it is a military matter, therefore he could not comment on it. However, Mr Bagchi stated “We believe the entire area is the occupied area. The Ministry of Defence will be able to tell you better its details and its implications. But if there is anything else to share, we will tell you.”
Talks & Bridge
There have been various rounds of talks between India and China related to the LAC and at different levels – diplomatic and military.
“The frictions and tensions that arise from China’s deployments since April 2020 cannot be reconciled with a normal relationship between two neighbours,” MEA spokesperson added.
According to him the two sides will continue to remain engaged at the military and diplomatic levels in an effort to ensure that the directions given by the foreign ministers of both countries are implemented.
The bridge, whether it’s a second one or it is an expansion of the existing one. And, in the area where it is being referred to, according to the MEA it considered this area occupied for decades.
Experts Views on second bridge at the Pangong Tso
Maj Gen Ashok Kumar, who is also a visiting fellow of CLAWS and specializes in neighbouring countries with special focus on China, states, “China has already been known for its long term vision. Even in 2013-14, when an article appeared laying down its priorities, it indicated the plans for the next 50-60 years wherein India’s border to be altered as per its claims was listed at Serial No three with Taiwan and East China being the first two. It is therefore very critical that we analyse the actions of Chinese in the long term to be able to respond appropriately.”
“Now the question arises what is the ultimate aim of such constructions being done? Besides being sovereignty markers, such infrastructure development will literally close our option to reclaim our areas as when the first bridge was constructed, it was stated that China has constructed the bridge in a territory that has been occupied by China since long. A similar response may come this time as well. While having agreed on the Macmohan line as a border between itself and us in Arunachal Pradesh in informal communications/ various negotiation settlements, China still objects to our PM and other dignitaries visiting Arunachal Pradesh,” Kargil veteran opines.
Is there a need for stronger protests from us as well for any Chinese actions in those areas that we consider as ours? Or do we need to wait to enhance our war fighting capability and reach a stage where the current status is presented as a fait accompli?
“The second bridge at Pangong Tso should also not be analysed merely as a means to move armoured and other heavy vehicles from Northern bank to the Southern bank. It will not be far when another garrison/permanent deployment of the troops of Chinese appears on the Southern bank of Pangong Tso and both these bridges are used not only to maintain the pre positioned troops but also give Chinese a surge capacity deployment in any future conflict even both at local level as well as at an enlarged conflict level,” he says.
The infrastructure development by China now plans to negate our tactical advantage and having hardened high altitude capable soldiers. “A well thought out strategy with at least 50 years ahead in vision is needed if not more to combat this move,” he suggests.
Sharing his views with Financial Express Online, Lt Col Manoj K Channan, Veteran, “The PLA has been keeping up its belligerence while feigning a façade of talks at the Corps commanders’ level and now probably at the brigade / battalion level as has been revealed by senior military officers responsible for the area of responsibility.”
“While bridging the gap on confidence building measures has been cast aside, the first bridge and now the second bridge is perhaps to build the confidence of the PLA military commanders on their ability to quickly deploy their forces, in much earlier time frames from the North Bank of the Pangong Tso to its Southern Bank. The first bridge was used as a service bridge to build the second bridge.
This kind of infrastructure development is dangerous and disturbs the ecological balance in this fragile Himalayan region,” he observes.
While the construction of this bridge may seem to give the PLA moral ascendancy, in real terms, it really doesn’t.
“The recent river crossings in Ukraine at Seversky Donet set the social media ablaze with the video footage indicating the destruction of the mechanised group by the use of drones for laser designation of precision guided munitions.
This is adequate to put to rest any major concerns on the Indian side. A sharp military commander would allow such a build-up on either side of the lake and destroy the bridges midway of the crossings with the majority of the force having crossed over in the process and sink them in the Pangong Tso. Destroy the residual force on the North Bank and may destroy or capture those who survived on the South bank for the negotiating table,” according to Lt Col Manoj K Channan
“Infrastructure development is important for deployment and sidestepping of troops, it is equally important to have the ability to protect it,” he opines.