The case of shots being fired in the Pangong Tso area on Monday night (7/8 September) is presenting itself as a Rashomon-like opera –– so, it may be a good idea to examine the issue from both the Indian and Chinese perspectives.
- China: The spokesman of China’s Western Theater Command, Colonel Zhang Shuili, said that Indian troops fired warning shots on Chinese border patrol which was about to negotiate with them. Thereafter, the Chinese were forced to take unspecified counter-measures. He said that the Indian forces had crossed the China-India border into the Shenpao/Godpao mountain region near the south bank of Pangong Tso Lake.
- India: The Indian side has said that the boot is on the other foot. Chinese soldiers closed in on some positions that the Indians has occupied on 29/30 August, and were warned off. In frustration, the Chinese side fired several shots in the air. The action seems to have taken place at Mukpari, a 5595 m peak, north-east of Rezang La, as well as at Reqin La, a few kilometres south-west of Rezang La that India had occupied. Some Indian soldiers were injured in the Reqin La scuffle. The Chinese have, as is their wont, rechristened the Mukpari mountain. Cartographic capture is a standard Chinese technique.
Aim Is Not To Mount Some Military Operation Against The Chinese Forces
If what the Indian side is saying is correct – and this is more than likely – it means that the Chinese are not reconciled to the Indian occupation of the grey zone in the area, which means occupying heights like Helmet, Black Top, Mukpari, Rezang La and Reqin La, mirroring their own action in the north bank of the Pangong Tso. They are now trying their level best to push the Indians out of the area.
If what the Chinese side says is true, it means that Indian forces are continuing to maintain pressure on the Chinese in the south bank.
Clearly, the aim is not to mount some military operation against the Chinese forces who are quite well entrenched in the Spanggur Tso region, but to encourage them to restore status quo ante in the north bank of the Lake.
- The spokesman of China’s Western Theater Command, Colonel Zhang Shuili, said that Indian troops fired warning shots on Chinese border patrol which was about to negotiate with them.
- The Indian side has said that the boot is on the other foot. Chinese soldiers closed in on some positions that the Indians has occupied on 29/30 August, and were warned off.
- Clearly, the aim is not to mount some military operation against the Chinese forces who are quite well entrenched in the Spanggur Tso region, but to encourage them to restore status quo ante in the north bank of the Lake.
- India is determined not to let the situation freeze into a status quo.
A ‘Confirmation’ That Old Confidence Building Measures Regime Is ‘Dead’
The commando anchors have already declared the Indian occupation of the peaks in the south bank of the Pangong Tso as some sort of a victory. Actually, having been caught napping in Depsang, Galwan and Pangong Tso, the Army didn’t want to let its guard down in this vital region as well.
The Indian action had two aims:
- First, and primarily, to defend important Indian communication links
- Second, to rattle the Chinese by signalling that the two sides can play the same game of occupying the LAC grey zones
Two important roads lead out of the south bank—one north from Chushul to Tangtse, Durbuk and Leh, and the other south past the area of action, to the Loma Bend on the Indus river and thence up to Leh in the north, and down river to Demchok in the south. The south bank area was the area that saw the main thrust of the Chinese attack in November 1962, in an arc from Rezang La to the Yula area of the southern shore of Pangong Tso.
There have been reports that some shots had also been fired on the night of 29 August when Indian troops had occupied the heights. Further, there have been reports of the PLA trying to nudge the Indians out of their newly-occupied positions.
So, fresh reports of firing should be occasion for concern.
Essentially they confirm that the old Confidence Building Measures Regime inaugurated by the Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement of 1993 is dead. Already in the wake of the 15 June Galwan incident, India had reset the rules of engagement with Chinese troops.
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh had given the army “full freedom” to deal with China “while protecting Indian territory and the lives of army personnel.”
India Won’t Let The Situation Freeze Into Status Quo
Second, it signals that India is determined not to let the situation freeze into a status quo. Even though at the highest levels it has taken an ambiguous stand, declaring that the Chinese were not occupying any Indian territory, the reality is that the Chinese have occupied some 1,000 sq kms of the grey zone in Depsang, Galwan, Gogra and Pangong Tso. The Indian strategy now is to push the Chinese to the point where they are willing to return to status quo ante as of April in these areas.
This is fraught strategy, and any of these incidents could escalate to a wider skirmish with consequences neither side may intend. In keeping with the way it handles these things, the Modi government is also seeking to ride the wave of patriotism roused by the commando anchors, so, there is also some media manipulation to overstate what is happening.
We need to be wary because in the process, some dangerous signalling is also taking place.
The government used the Special Frontier Force, manned by Tibetans, for the 29 August operation, and then made it known widely. This could not but have been seen as a provocative gesture by the Chinese. The presence of the BJP General Secretary Ram Madhav at the funeral of a Tibetan soldier of the force would be seen as an egregious slap on China’s face.
Clearly, New Delhi is playing hardball here. If it can succeed in getting the Chinese to go back, it will be a victory – and you can be sure that there will be a lot of crowing, ideally if it comes before the Bihar elections.
But if it fails, the situation could be more like Kargil where, having failed to prevent the incursions, India had to sacrifice the lives of more than 500 young men, even while claiming it to be a ‘great victory’.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)