Pangong Tso lake, theatre of India-China LAC scuffles
Why the Two Prominent, Yet Estranged Asian Giants can be Natural Partners in the 21st Century

Pangong Tso lake, theatre of India-China LAC scuffles

Introduction

This article pertains to the Pangong Tso Lake which has been the epicenter of scrimmage between the Indian and Chinese soldiers owing to confusion with regard to the LAC (Line of Actual Control).


Background

In August 2017, an online video confirmed the reports of online scuffle between the Indian and Chinese troops on the banks of Pangong Lake. The two sides resorted to kicking, punching, throwing stones, using sticks and rods against each other. The two patrols coming face to face would have been expected to undertake ‘banner drill’ which means that each side would display a banner asking the other side to vacate its territory. This drill was to last for a few minutes to an hour post which they were to disengage quietly. However, the fact that the Chinese decided to initiate violence against the Indian troops is suspected to have been linked to the escalated tensions between the two armies due to the then standoff at Doklam on the Sikkim border.


Current Context

On 11th September 2019, the Indian and Chinese soldiers had a heated exchange in Ladakh near the Pangong Tso Lake. This happened when the Chinese troops objected to patrolling by Indian soldiers. It is believed that differing perceptions with respect to the Line of Actual (LAC) control was responsible for this brouhaha, as per the unnamed army sources.

Line of Actual Control (LAC)

While India’s 4057 km. long border with China extending from Kashmir to the states of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh in the north, and then to the states of Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh in the northeast is largely known as the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the border separating the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh from the Tibetan region is also known more specifically as the McMahon Line.

The Line of Actual Control is classified into three sectors – viz. the Western Sector, the Central Sector and the Eastern Sector.

While the border shared by the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir with China falls under the Western Sector, the borders shared by the states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand with China come under the Central Sector.

The Eastern Sector of the LAC covers China’s borders with the Indian states of Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh in the Northeast.

Current Context (continued)

Pangong Tso

Pangong refers to ‘extensive concavity’ in the Ladakhi language, and Tso means lake in Tibetan. Pangong Tso is a long narrow, deep and landlocked lake situated at a height of more than 14,000 ft. in the Ladakh Himalayas, the western end of which lies 54 km. to the southeast of Leh. It is 135 km. long lake that covers over 604 sq. km. area in the shape of a boomerang, and is 6 km. wide at its broadest point.

The brackish water lake freezes over in winter, and becomes ideal for ice skating and polo. The legendary 19th century Dogra general Zorawar Singh is believed to have trained his soldiers and horses on the frozen Pangong Lake prior to invading Tibet.

Strategic significance of Panong Tso

Although the LAC cuts through the lake, both India and China do not agree on its exact location. Presently, a 45 km. long western portion of the lake is in Indian control and the rest is in China’s control. It is in this region that most of the clashes take place between both the armies. Even though it is a fact that the lake does not have any major tactical significance, it is equally true that it lies in the path of Chushul approach, one of the key approaches that China can use for an offensive into the Indian-held territory. India believes that a major Chinese offensive would be from north and south of the lake.

In the 1962 war, this was where China launched its main offensive. The Indian Army fought bravely at Rezang La, the mountain pass on the southeastern approach to Chushul valley, where the Ahir Company of 13 Kumaon led by Major Shaitan Singh made its last stand. Over a period of time, the Chinese have constructed motorable roads along their banks of the Pangong Tso. At the People’s Liberation Army’s Huangyangtan base at Minningzhen, southwest of Yinchuan, the capital of China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, stands a massive to-scale model of this disputed area in Aksai Chin. It highlights the importance accorded by the Chinese to the area.

Dispute in the area

The difference in perception over the LAC lies on the northern bank of the lake and in 1999, when the Indian Army unit was moved to Kargil for Operation Vijay, China took undue advantage and built a 5 km. road inside Indian Territory along the bank of the Pangong Lake. This road by the Chinese connected to the G219 Karakoram Highway and from one of these roads, China managed to keep an eye on the Indian positions on the northern tip of the lake.


Conclusion

Pangong Tso is a strategic position and it has been a bone of contention between the Indian and the Chinese troops since many decades. It is important that both the countries sort out their differences to curb any tension in the region which is already very hostile.

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