Ladakh Standoff: Why India holds the edge in Galwan Valley

Indian Army Chief General MM Naravane has confirmed for the first time that Indian and Chinese troops have begun the process of “disengagement” at the Galwan Valley in the northern areas of Ladakh after a series of local military consultations between the two forces.

In an interaction with reporters after delivering the keynote address at the passing out parade of the Indian Military Academy (IMA) in Dehradun, General Naravane highlighted that the military level talks between the two forces were yielding fruitful results. The four-star Indian Army General, however, cautioned that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was still in Indian territory.

“I would not like to use the word retreat in any context… We have started (disengaging) from the northern areas in the Galwan Valley,” said General Naravane in his fist comments on the standoff which began when Chinese troops crossed the line of actual control two months ago.

Both sides are disengaging and we hope that the situation improves as the talks progress, he added.

Army veterans and defense experts say that the strong geographical advantage India possesses in the Galwan Valley area is well understood by China.

The entire Galwan Valley is overlooked by the Daulat Beg Oldi airbase notes former General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of Indian Army’s Eastern Command Lieutenant General Abhay Krishna, who adds that India possesses a “geographical edge” in the region.

“DBO is adjacent to the Chip Chap river, lies 8 km south and 9 km west of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China. The air distance to the Karakoram Pass from DBO is just 10 Km and approximately 70 Km to Galwan valley. Even though India has never raised any additional territorial claim, but India connecting through land route with DBO perhaps makes China apprehensive of India challenging their interests especially with respect to Aksai Chin,” explains Lt General Krishna, a key person who helped successfully negotiate the Doklam standoff in 2017.

The army veteran, who has served in the Army for almost four decades, says that barring a few pockets along the LAC, India definitely enjoys a terrain advantage at its border with China.

“Indian Army soldiers are battle hardened and highly acclimatised to operate under every adverse condition, unlike the soldiers of People Liberation Army that actually belongs to CCP and not to the Chinese Nation,” added Lt Gen Abhay Krishna.

The construction of the nine kilometre road linking the strategic Darbuk Shyok Daulat Beg Oldi (DSDBO) Road to the Galwan Valley (patrolling point 14) has triggered the latest intrusions of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers accompanied by building of infrastructure in the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

Dr Anant Bhagwat, who heads the national security think tank Global Strategic Policy Foundation Pune (GSPFP), emphasises DBO airbase’s highly strategic position just under ten kilometres from the LAC and within shooting range of the Karakoram Pass.

“For China, the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) runs parallel to the Lhasa Kashghar-Xinjiang Road, another strategic road on the Chinese side of the LAC,” says Dr Bhagwat.

“Ground connectivity has been achieved upto DBO base so that our dependence on air supplies to DBO have dramatically reduced. In fact, China was surprised to note that Indian troops moved with lightning speed to stop further incursions,” he highlights.

“We have already demonstrated the strength of our supply lines in case of a situation by landing the C-130 J Hercules aircraft with a load capacity of 70 tonnes,” adds Dr Bhagwat.

Colonel Jaibans Singh, an Indian Army veteran and a commentator on military affairs, also expresses confidence in India’s strategic edge over China in the Galwan Valley area.

“The Galwan Valley is an area where the border issue with China is deemed to be settled. By building infrastructure in terms of roads, airstrips and communication, India has militarily and strategically all but secured the area,” he says.

Colonel Singh suggests that a stretched out affair in the Galwan Valley will go in India’s favour. “Let us see how they sustain themselves in the winter. They will themselves withdraw during the latter part of the year once it starts getting colder,” the defence expert reckons.

Nearly 10,000 Chinese troops are currently on what has till date been land perceived by India to be on its side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) at two different locations in eastern Ladakh — Galwan Valley region in the north-eastern part and the region on the banks of the Pangong-Tso Lake towards its south.

Both the regions are being occupied by China in entirety, while India has demanded the restoration of the status quo as it existed before April.

While the situation in Galwan Valley looks favourable, the problem lies in the Pangong Tso Lake area, where the Chinese are learnt to have dug trenches facing the Indian soldiers at Finger 4 on the banks. With PLA’s incursions on the northern shores of the lake upto Finger 4, only 40 kilometres in the west are under Indian control.

The Chinese army has built motorable roads along the banks till Finger 4, very close to the trenches.

Till April, Indian troops had been freely patrolling the area upto Finger 8 along the banks. A major fist fight had taken place between the two forces on May 13 after the Chinese established their presence there, as per news reports.

South of the Pangong Tso Lake, a hillock separates it from another water body Spangar Lake, with another Chinese road running at its southern banks. The hillock has a Chinese outpost, which overlooks India’s Chulshul Post and the Leh-Chulshul road.

Former officials, on condition of anonymity, say that a strong response may be needed to restore the status quo in the Pangong Tso Lake area, where the Chinese have been reinforcing their presence, helped by the fact that both the lakeside roads serve as passage to G-219 Lhasa-Kashgar Highway, which passes through the eastern edge of the Pangong Tso Lake.