India-China border clash: Is China modifying the Galwan Valley geography?

June 20, 2020 3:15 PM

China is known to be using GIS-based tools for their various military assessments. Their Lanzhou Military (ground force) Command is known to be distributing vast numbers of maps to its troops to tell them about what they view as India-China border.

india-china stand off, galwan valley, india china relations, india-china face off, india china ladakh stand off, India china ladakh violent face off, India china galwan valley stand off, india china tensions, india china border tensionEnvironmental modification is not new to China. (Representative image: IE)

By Dr Ajey Lele

India-China Galwan Valley skirmish killing 20 Indian troops happened exactly after two and half months after India and China completed their 70 years of diplomatic relations on 01 April 2020. For more than four decades, not even a single bullet has been fired along the India and China border which is more than 3,440km in length. In some sense, it was perceived to be a relatively peaceful border in spite of having overlapping territorial claims, but not anymore.

There have been claims by Chinese media that Indian agencies are building infrastructure in the Galwan Valley region of the contested Aksai Chin area which is actually a portion of the Kashmir region. Galwan Valley and the adjoining region is an arid and inhospitable area, which for many months in the year experiences freezing temperatures. The Galwan River flows from Aksai Chin towards Ladakh region of India. This river actually originates in the area of Samzungling on the eastern side of the Karakoram range. By using latest satellite imageries few experts have carried out terrain analysis of this region. Also, these imageries are showing the presence of bulldozers and other equipment and vehicles operating in this region. All this indicates that China is possibly trying to change the course of the river and making river crossings. All this leads to a broad conclusion that China could be possibly damming this river.

There could be different reasons for choosing this site for building the dams. One possible reason could be that China is thinking of building a dam as a possible ‘weapon’ if the need arises. China is known to be controlling (in a limited sense) the water flow over the Southeast Asian nations after they have built Yunnan dam into the Mekong River. China has never been transparent in regards to the activities they undertake for water management. In the past, China has refused to share the hydrological data on its upstream infrastructure operations, particularly over the region close to NE India.

Dam failures could happen either owing natural reasons or because of accident/sabotage. In reality, there are very few cases of dam failures. China itself has witnessed such a failure during 1975. This was a major disaster owing to a Typhoon Nina, which ended up with breaking of many dams including the largest Banqiao Dam in Henan region. More than two lakhs people are known to have died in this disaster and made more than 11 million people homeless. There is also an unfortunate history of bursting dams intentionally during wars. Even though this has happened only once in the past that does not guarantee that it would never happen in the future. Probably, that is why India needs to be careful about the possibility of China building a dam on Galwan river.

During 16 and 17 May 1943, the No. 617 Squadron of Royal Air Force (RAF) was tasked to undertake Operation Chastise. It was a bombing raid on German dams. They successfully busted the Möhne and Edersee dams. They wrecked two hydroelectric power stations and damaged a few more. Also, some limited damage was caused to the Sorpe Dam. Few thousand labours are known to have died in this raid and there was significant flooding in the region.

Not much is known about the geospatial engineers working with PLA. Developed millilitres (like the US) are known to have units, which have specially trained geospatial engineers. They are responsible for using geographic data that supports military/civilian operations. Such collection and analysis of the geospatial information help to undertake terrain assessment accurately. Such evaluation informs the military establishment about the possible effects of terrain on their warfighting capabilities.

China is known to be using GIS-based tools for their various military assessments. Their Lanzhou Military (ground force) Command is known to be distributing vast numbers of maps to its troops to tell them about what they view as India-China border. Interestingly, in reality, the Chinese government is not even publishing these maps as official maps. All in all, China has expertise in terrain reading and providing selected information to its own troops. Now the activities happening in various regions of the India-China border are indicating that China has started physically manipulating part of this region for military reasons.

Environmental modification is not new to China. They are undertaking weather modification experiments for long and have developed a very effective system for such purposes. On various occasions like Olympics, various important military parades and during multilateral meetings they have successfully ensured that the weather would behave the way they want! Now manipulating the terrain and topography for their military use is just the next step. India needs to effectively monitor China’s experiments with terrain tampering in Galwan region.

(Author is Senior Fellow at MP-IDSA, New Delhi. The views are personal.)

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