By Meia Nouwens
Fatal clashes on the China–India border have aroused fresh speculation about the extent of a military build-up in the western Himalayas. Henry Boyd and Meia Nouwens assess satellite imagery to explain what has been happening there since early May.
Unverified videos began circulating on social media from 5 May, showing scuffles between Indian and Chinese personnel along India’s disputed western border with China. Though subsequent open-source reporting has been prolific, official information from either side has not, and details have remained vague and often conflicting.
Open-source satellite imagery suggests that the most alarming claims, that 10,000 troops from China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have crossed the nominal Line of Actual Control (LAC) and are occupying undisputed Indian territory, appear to have been unsubstantiated. However, there is credible evidence to suggest that both China and India have significantly reinforced their positions on their respective sides of the de-facto border, leading to a series of military-to-military talks aimed at resolving the current situation. The fatal clashes that took place during this de-escalation process in mid-June underline the tense nature of the situation and the continuing challenges to its successful resolution.
What has been happening?
The lack of official comment about on-the-ground developments from both sides, combined with the mountainous terrain of the region and wide geographic spread of the various points of recent activity, make it difficult to build an accurate picture of the situation on the ground.
The most recent confrontations have taken place in four main points along the LAC: Pangong Lake, the Galwan River valley, the Hotsprings/Gogra area along the Ladakh border, and near Naku La in Sikkim. While they seemed to have been resolved through bilateral dialogue over the past few weeks, the situation along the northern banks of Pangong Lake in Ladakh, where the confrontations started, remains tense.
Chinese and Indian claims overlap significantly in this part of the LAC, but neither side officially acknowledges the extent of their overlapping claims along Pangong Lake. India colloquially describes the disputed area as ‘Fingers’ in reference to eight successive outcroppings of land into the lake, and asserts that the LAC starts at Finger 8, while the Chinese claim that it starts at Finger 2, which India dominates. At the beginning of the year, India’s most advanced post was located at Finger 3, while China’s was at Finger 8. Both sides regularly patrolled the area between Fingers 4 and 8 in support of their claims, but neither had occupied it permanently.
On 5 and 6 May, Indian media reported that Indian and Chinese troops had clashed, injuring soldiers from both sides. Further ‘intrusions’ by both sides have taken place since then, notably on 21 and 22 May, but these have reportedly been small reconnaissance operations and not involved any occupation of territory.
In a rare show of high-level military dialogue, the commanders of India’s XIV Corps and China’s Southern Xinjiang Military District met on 6 June in eastern Ladakh. And mid- and lower-level military officials met inconclusively on 10 June ahead of a possible second round of high-level commander talks. As a result, Indian and Chinese troops have reportedly ‘disengaged on the ground at multiple locations in Eastern Ladakh’, with both sides agreeing to pull back their troops from the LAC in the areas of the Galwan valley, Patrolling Point 15 and Hot Springs in eastern Ladakh by 2–2.5km. The dispute along the northern shore of Pangong Lake, however, was not mentioned in read-outs of the 6 June talks, suggesting that friction between the two sides has not been resolved and that here the additional troop build-up remains in place. Following the news of fatalities in the latest clash in the Galwan valley, bilateral talks have been upgraded to foreign minister level.
What are China’s actual military resources in the area?
The PLA Army has three border-defence companies (边防连) based close to the areas in question in Aksai Chin. Two are drawn from the 362nd Border Regiment (32160部队) and are located at Fort Khurnak (库尔那克堡) on the north bank of Pangong Lake and at Spanggur Lake (斯潘古尔) to the south. The third is located at the Kongka Pass (空喀山口) near the Indian post at Gogra/Hot Springs, and belongs to the 363rd Border Regiment (69316部队). There is also a patrol boat squadron (山顶上的国门舰队) on Pangong Lake itself. At establishment, these units would amount to around 500–600 personnel. Under the circumstances, it is probable that additional forces – drawn from one or both of their parent Border Defence Regiments’ operational reserves – have also been deployed to the area, raising the total PLA border forces in the area to 1,000–1,500 personnel.
In addition to the border forces, the PLA Army has mobilised additional conventional combat forces, most likely from the 6th Mechanised Division. This formation is based far to the northwest, on the southern boundary of the Taklamakan Desert, but constitutes the Southern Xinjiang Military District’s primary operational reserve. In the Doklam confrontation of 2017, PLA Army force dispositions seemed to follow a similar pattern, with border forces on the frontline, but with regular manoeuvre formations deployed further back as a reserve.
By the end of May, companies of main battle tanks and batteries of towed artillery had been deployed at existing Chinese positions north and east of Gogra. This combination of heavy armour and towed artillery is now quite rare in the PLA Army following its latest reorganisation – but is consistent with the known equipment holdings of the 6th Mechanised Division, as well as the three other divisions in the Xinjiang Military District.
In the Galwan River sector, a very small Chinese deployment at Patrolling Point 14 (PP14) had been withdrawn by the end of May, with the main PLA camp then established 3km further back in territory China already occupied. There is little indication that this detachment is equipped with armour or artillery, and the planned Chinese road along the valley remains unfinished, complicating the PLA’s ability to maintain a more substantial presence in this area for now. During de-escalation activities near PP14 on the night of 15 June, however, a confrontation occurred between Indian and Chinese troops. Although no shots were reportedly fired, a physical fight eventually resulted in multiple fatalities on both sides, with the harsh climactic conditions and freezing temperatures gravely exacerbating the troops’ injuries.
The situation along the northern banks of Pangong Lake is different and at present seems to be the most challenging barrier to a successful conclusion of the de-escalation talks. From early May, China has placed more forces into the disputed area between Finger 4 and Finger 8. According to Indian sources, these additional troops have blocked the path from Finger 2 to Finger 8, with one source claiming that the Chinese have ‘dug up a moat-like construction with troop build-up to prevent India from patrolling further’ between Fingers 3 and 4. This apparent attempt to solidify Chinese control over the disputed area now seems to be the key point of contention between the two sides.
Overall, these deployments correlate with reporting in the Indian media that, by late May, China had between 1,200 and 1,500 personnel in the immediate vicinity of the LAC, with around 5,000 more diverted to the region in support.
In response to the initial clashes, India has reinforced the Indo-Tibetan Border Police and rotational army units in its forward positions along the LAC with additional army personnel from the 3rd Infantry Division. Elements of the division’s 81st Mountain Brigade and 114th Infantry Brigade have reportedly been brought forward from their regular cantonments in the valley between Durbuk and Tangtse, with additional units being brought into theatre to replace these mobilised forces as an operational reserve.
Are things different this time?
This round of confrontations takes place within a larger and increasingly tense geopolitical context between the US and China, and China and the wider Indo-Pacific region. However, incidents like this aren’t a novel development (see Churmur in 2014 and Doklam in 2017). While the wider geopolitical context might heighten threat perceptions, this episode in the ongoing disputes is not more likely to result in an outright kinetic war.
The current clashes should be seen as a continuation of a trend of incidents that occur each spring, when snow in this mountainous region thaws and opportunistic gains can be made on either side of the disputed border. The Indian government estimates that between 2016 and 2018 there were 1,025 transgressions by the PLA along the LAC. In 2016, there were 273 transgressions, rising to 426 in 2017 and decreasing again in 2018 to 326. The Chinese government doesn’t publish similar details of perceived transgressions into territory it claims as its own.
The spark leading to such incidents also doesn’t seem vastly different. In Churmur in 2014 and Doklam in 2017, tensions rose as the result of perceived transgressions beyond the territorial status quo and the construction of new, or the reinforcement of existing, connectivity infrastructure. Raised threat perceptions due to infrastructure development along the border area seem to have been at least one reason for last month’s confrontations.
The fatalities following the 16 June incident demonstrate just how high tensions are running between the two sides. Ongoing military and diplomatic talks are a positive de-escalatory move, but won’t be a permanent one. They are unlikely to lead to any lasting clarification over where exactly the boundaries of Indian or Chinese claims along the LAC lie. Since the 2017 Doklam standoff, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping have held annual informal summits to defuse tensions. The current clashes may raise question marks about the utility of such high-level engagements. Some observers maintain that such summits provide much-needed opportunities for high-level dialogue during times of crisis, while others argue that they have failed to achieve a tangible outcome. Until then, expect more border confrontations each spring.
About the author
Meia is a Research Fellow for Chinese Defence Policy and Military Modernisation. She is responsible for the analysis of Chinese defence policy and assessment of China’s international military projection. She is a joint lead on the China Security Project, in collaboration with the Mercator Institute for China Studies. She also contributes to assessments on China in The Military Balance.