While the External Affairs Ministry had said yesterday that a new “so-called” bridge being constructed by China on Pangong Tso is in an area that India considers to have been occupied by China for decades, experts opine it may be difficult to retrieve that part of India now. MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said the bridge was a second structure that China was building in an area that lies along India’s claim line but is more than 20 km east of where India claims the Line of Actual Control passes through.
There was a political uproar in India when Prime Minister Narendra Modi had declared no area that China had annexed recently was still under Beijing’s control, with the INC and the party’s former president Rahul Gandhi saying that the government had given away Indian land to China. But it has since then turned out that Indian areas that are still in Chinese control were all lost under Congress governments.
A defence ministry source said, “China has controlled the area since 1958 even though it lies just west of the line that India maintains is the international boundary.” That makes it within India’s territory, the official said.
“We have seen media reports and other reports on the so-called bridge…I don’t know if it’s another bridge. Somebody said it’s a second bridge or if it’s an expansion or widening of the current bridge,” the MEA said yesterday.
“We have always considered the area that was referred to as an occupied area for decades. I won’t be able to comment from a military perspective, that I think the Ministry of Defence would be in a better position to tell and also about the implications of that (the bridge). But as I said, we monitor such developments and if there’s any update on this, we will share,” Bagchi said.
Defence experts say that the bridge in question is the second bridge, wider than the first, which China is building right next to the one it had constructed earlier this year. The construction work has been on for a few months.
A senior defence ministry source said that earlier it was believed that China was building a temporary structure for the facilitation of some work for the first bridge. But, he said, “Now it is the other way round,” and added, “This is the permanent bridge and the first one seems to have been built to help in building this.”
The official is not sure of the dimensions of the bridge, but the first bridge that was visible in the satellite images was about 400 m long and 8 m wide. India once believed it to be built for Chinese force movement between the north and south banks of Pangong Tso, which were two of the most contentious friction points of the over two-year long ongoing standoff in eastern Ladakh. However, troops from both sides were pulled back from these friction points in February 2021. The new permanent bridge is coming up right next to it.
The official said, “We can safely assume it is meant for the forces to move between north and south banks of the lake.” Regarding the capacity of the bridge, he said that it will allow for movement of all types of military vehicles, including tanks. “Everything,” he said, “Why else will they make it?” he asked.
The source said the bridge would facilitate early response and deployment of mechanised forces by China. While India is monitoring the area, the expert said it was unknown when China began building this second bridge. The timelines have not been kept since it was meant to be a temporary structure initially but may be a couple of months, the official said.
The site of the bridge built by China, standing next to the previous one, is about 20 km east of Finger 8 on the north bank of the lake, which is where India says the LoAC passes through. But by road, it is more than 35 km from Finger 8.
It is near the east of Khurnak Fort, a ruin where China has major frontier defence bases and the Chinese call the region Rutong County. China has a frontier defence company at the Khurnak Fort and farther east. China also has a water squadron deployed at Banmozhang.
The bridge is near the halfway mark of the boomerang-shaped 135-km-long Pangong Tso. India has about 45 km of the lake under its control.