Pangong Tso Standoff: The significance of Ladakh’s lake where China attempted to alter status quo

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September 1, 2020 3:55 PM

Spread in a total area of about 600 sq km at the height of about 4,270 metre, the lake is about 135 km long and 6 km in breadth at its widest stretch. The Karakoram Mountain range which flanks the Ladakh region on the North ends at the Northern bank of the Pangong Tso lake.

While India claims that the LAC passes through Finger 8 on the Northern bank, the Chinese claim it passes further West.While India claims that the LAC passes through Finger 8 on the Northern bank, the Chinese claim it passes further West.

The Indian army has said that it foiled an attempt by the Chinese forces on Saturday to change the status quo on the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The army said that China had deployed its forces in an area, on the Southern bank of the Pangong Tso lake in Eastern Ladakh, which previously had no deployement, according to an Indian Express report. In a statement issued on Monday morning, the Army also said that the Chinese forces had violated the consensus that had been arrived at between the two sides during the ongoing border dispute in Eastern Ladakh. It also said that the Chinese forces carried some provocative military movements to alter the status quo. The action initiated by the Chinese forces assumes significance as the dispute between the two sides in the last four months has remained confined to the Northern bank of the Pangong Tso lake so far, however the recent activity by the Chinese forces was on the Southern bank of the lake.

What is Pangong Tso lake?
The lake which has become the latest flashpoint between the security forces of the two countries lies partly in India’s Ladakh region and partly in the Tibet region. Spread in a total area of about 600 sq km at the height of about 4,270 metre, the lake is about 135 km long and 6 km in breadth at its widest stretch. The Karakoram Mountain range which flanks the Ladakh region on the North ends at the Northern bank of the Pangong Tso lake. On the Southern bank of the lake there are broken mountains sliding towards the Spangur lake in the South. Being at the height of over 4,000 metre, the lake gets completely frozen in the winters and also facilitates limited vehicular movement.

Who controls the Pangong Tso lake?
Two thirds of the lake is controlled by China whereas about 45 kilometre of the lake is under the Indian control. Since the two countries have not been able to settle their decades old boundary dispute, there are differing perceptions of the LAC in multiple sectors including the Pangong Tso lake. While there are huge differences in the perception of LAC on the Northern bank of the lake, there is not much difference in the perception on the Southern bank of the lake. A former Brigade Commander told the Indian Express that the LAC perception on the Southern bank of the lake hardly differs by 100-200 metres. He also said that there are hardly any prominent features on the Southern bank like fingers on the North which could demarcate the boundary clearly.

On the other hand, there are big perception differences on the Northern bank of the lake. India claims that the international border is in close vicinity to the Khurnak fort on the Northern bank of the lake whereas the LAC is around 15 kilometre West from the international border. While India claims that the LAC passes through Finger 8 on the Northern bank, the Chinese claim it passes further West.

Current status of the Pangong Tso lake
The North Bank of the lake has been the area of dispute between the two sides since the month of May. On the night of May 5-6 the soldiers of the two sides got involved in a physical fight. A similar incident took place on June 15 in the Galwan valley that resulted in the death of 20 Indian soldiers and a number of Chinese soldiers were also reported to have died during the incident but the number of dead soldiers was not confirmed by the Chinese. China then attempted to change the status quo and positioned its troops in the area between Finger 4 and Finger 8. The area between Finger 4 and Finger 8 used to be patrolled by both the sides but had not been occupied by either of the forces. Later withdrawing from the Finger 4 area, the Chinese strengthened their buildup near Finger 5.

What changed on the South bank of Pangong Tso lake?
In contrast to the Northern bank which saw the buildup and resultant clashes between the two sides, the Southern bank of the lake had remained relatively quiet in the last four months. Close army sources also told IE that India’s position had been much stronger on the Southern bank of the lake due to its proximity with areas like Chushul and Rezang La. The former Brigade Commander said that the Northern Bank has become an area of intense activity during the last few years only because of clashes between the patrolling units of the two countries. He also said that the Southern bank of the lake has traditionally been more in the limelight because it is straight in the North of Chushul approach. Hosting a large area of planes, the Chushul approach is also an area which is strategically important to both the countries as the area could be used to launch massive offensives.

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