Deterrent message to China

No matter what the opposition says, the satellite imagery has shown that what happened at Galwan valley on June 15, was a fairly deep incursion into the Chinese side of the LAC in order to force the demolition of a dam. It was in fact a calculated escalation by the Indian side in 50 years. The picture across the Ladakh front show us three clear but separate actions – aggressive action in Galwan to prevent the weaponisation of water; proactive construction in Gogra to cut off Chinese patrols and a formalization of the status quo in Pangong that has been fait accompli at least since 1999.
Most crucial is what happened in Galwan. By June 2, satellite imagery had revealed an obstruction on the Galwan River, 650 to 700 m on the Chinese side of the LAC where the river runs south to the north till it turns sharply westwards and joins the Shyok. Sometime around the first week of May, the Chinese crossed over some 100 m across the LAC at Galwan and set up two tents housing approximately 40 troops.
By the end of May, India had pushed back the Chinese, dismantled the Chinese tents and constructed an Indian tent there. However, the Chinese blocked this fast-flowing river, some 650 m into their side of the LAC. The nature of the blocking structure remains undecipherable from the available images: it wasn’t a dam because it covered only one-third of the valley and there were no signs of either a divert or a reservoir there. What was undeniable was that the rest of the Galwan Valley on our side of the LAC was dry, with no visible signs of residual moisture indicating that the Indian side of the Galwan basin had been dry for at least a few days.
The implications for India were dire, given its status as lower riparian to China not just for the Galwan but a whole host of Northern Indian rivers fed by glacial flows from China. When the disengagement talks happened on June 6, both sides agreed to move back 2 to 3 km respectively, the Chinese had refused to dismantle this structure which was a violation of the status quo even if on the Chinese side.
This is the “structure” the external affairs minister and Prime Minister on June 19 spoke about – the PM refusing to state which side of the LAC the structure was on. Remarkably, even the clarification issued on June 20 sidesteps whose side of the LAC the dam was on stating merely “across the LAC”. It was precisely to ensure that this structure was in fact demolished that troops went in on the night of the June 15. Fanciful and overdramatised accounts that have emerged of the Chinese having “opened the dam” to wash away our troops that night are not just patently wrong, but also untenable based on the satellite imagery of the afternoon of June 16.
The main reason was that there was no reservoir, nor was there a dam that spanned the entire valley to create the necessary flash flood. Moreover, the images of June 16 show that the rest of the valley remained as bone dry after the alleged “manmade flash-flood”, as it was on June 14.
Yet, images taken on June 17 show the offending structure dismantled and the Galwan in full flow right up to the Shyok. By June 19, the flow of the river had turned torrential and the Chinese were bringing up remnants of the dismantled structure right up to the LAC presumably to demonstrate compliance with the disengagement agreement.
In short, what Indian soldiers achieved on the night of June 15 was some significant systemic shock that forced the Chinese to stop this highly dangerous weaponisation of water. It is, therefore, safe to say the status quo ante has indeed been restored in Galwan, but more importantly, a clear deterrent message has been sent to China.
Hot Springs
Gogra or the “hot springs” continue to be tense due to a significant armour and artillery build up on the Chinese side. However, given an Indian forward base has been built in a record 2 months in a valley used by Chinese troops to regularly patrol into the Indian side of the LAC, all further avenues of such intrusion have been stopped.
Now, the only measure of control is infrastructure, and by that measure, India has thwarted any further Chinese intrusions in this region.
This brings us to Pangong where the Chinese have undeniably set up massive infrastructure from Finger 4 to Finger 8. But here again one confuses the issue that patrols somehow equate to “control”. The only proof of control is infrastructure and at least till 2014, China had an enormous lead. In 1999, the Chinese built a 24 km track from the international border to Finger 4. By 2004, the track was converted to a two-lane asphalted road. By 2006, the Chinese built a formidable naval base at the foot of Finger 6 and by 2018, an artillery fort at the base of Finger 8.
In contrast, till 2014, India’s position at Finger 4 was two small huts with no proper road. By October 2014, India had significant upgraded these two huts a full-fledged base, and built an asphalted two-lane highway. This one Indian construction stopped Chinese patrols west of Finger 4 while successive Chinese constructions had vastly reduced the freedom of patrol that India had east of Finger 4, which has finally come to an end in 2020 with the latest constructions.
Now, the question arises, what territory has been ceded, and what has been irretrievably lost in 2020, when for 21 years, the Chinese have been building infrastructure right up to Finger 4? Patrols are not a response to infrastructure, and parroting this line equating fleeting walks with permanent structures to score rhetorical points, shows all that was wrong with India’s policy.
What happened on the night of June 15 has not just set a precedent that India will not tolerate the weaponisation of water but also shown the way to South East Asian countries that suffer the same anxieties with regards to China’s control of rivers like the Mekong. By demonstrating that some Chinese actions will result in a violent Indian reaction, India has most certainly reached a new phase in the bilateral relationship.