China's Bridge Over Pangong Lake: Where It Is Being Built And How It Will Help The People's Liberation Army

by Prakhar Gupta - Jan 4, 2022 06:43 PM +05:30 IST
China's Bridge Over Pangong Lake: Where It Is Being Built And How It Will Help The People's Liberation ArmyA satellite image of the bridge. (@detresfa_/Twitter)
Snapshot
  • The bridge is coming up near the Khurnak Fort, one of the narrowest points of the 134-kilometre-long Pangong Lake.

    It will help China mobilise forces at short notice in the event of a crisis.

Satellite imagery has revealed that China is building a bridge to link the north and south banks of the Pangong Lake in eastern Ladakh. The news of the bridge's construction has brought back attention to the situation in eastern Ladakh, where Indian and Chinese forces have been locked in a tense military standoff since May 2020.

While the two sides have disengaged at some friction points, including the fingers area on the north bank of the Pangong Lake, the standoff continues in other areas as the latest round of talks have not yielded results.

Where Is The Bridge Coming Up?

The bridge is coming up near the Khurnak Fort, one of the narrowest points of the 134-kilometre-long Pangong Lake.

China occupied the area around Khurnak Fort in June 1958. In the 1962 war, China expanded its control to the Sirijap Complex, further west of the Khurnak Fort. During the war, India had posts at Sirijap while the Chinese had a base at Khurnak. The 'Fingers' area, occupied by Chinese forces in May 2020, leading to the standoff that continues at some places in eastern Ladakh, is further west of the Sirijap Complex.

Large bases of the People's Liberation Army have existed at Khurnak and Sirijap since the 1960s. The map below shows the approximate location of Khurnak Fort, Sirijap Complex and the Fingers area.

While India holds area upto the western side of Finger 4, which is also called Foxhole Point or Foxhole Ridge, and claims that the LAC runs through Finger 8, China claims that the LAC is close to Finger 2. India has been sending patrols upto Finger 8 for years while the Chinese patrol upto the eastern side Finger 4.
While India holds area upto the western side of Finger 4, which is also called Foxhole Point or Foxhole Ridge, and claims that the LAC runs through Finger 8, China claims that the LAC is close to Finger 2. India has been sending patrols upto Finger 8 for years while the Chinese patrol upto the eastern side Finger 4.

China is building the bridge very close to what New Delhi considers to be the border between India and Tibet. However, the place is around 25 kilometres from Sirijap, where the Line of Actual Control (LAC) lies, according to India's claim. As visible in the map above, Sirijap lies just east of Finger 8.

North of the Pangong Lake lies the Chang Chenmo range. Spurs that jut out from this range, running mostly perpendicular towards the northern bank of the Pangong Lake, are called 'fingers' by the Indian Army. These fingers are labelled 1 to 8 in the map above.

India controls the area upto the western side of Finger 4, which is also called Foxhole Point or Foxhole Ridge, and claims that the LAC runs east of Finger 8. China claims that the LAC is close to Finger 2.

Before the standoff that began in May 2020, Indian patrols went upto Finger 8, and the Chinese patrolled the area upto the eastern side of Finger 4. During the standoff, the Chinese, who had a base just east of Finger 8, occupied the area between Finger 8 and the eastern side of Finger 4, blocking India from accessing the area.

As part of the disengagement deal reached in January-February 2021, the Chinese dismantled the posts they had built between Finger 8 and Finger 4 and moved back to their traditional base east of Finger 8. Indian troops, who had taken up new positions in response to China's occupation, went back to their Dhan Singh Thapa Post, just west of Finger 3. A no-patrol zone was set up between Finger 3 and Finger 8.

When Did The Construction Of The Bridge Start?

While we don't know exactly when the construction of the bridge began, satellite imagery experts say the first signs of the erection of the structure started appearing in the last days of September and early October of 2021.

In the satellite image of the Khurnak Plain (the alluvial fan of a stream known as Changlung Lungpa; also called Ote Plain) below, taken on 7 November 2021, the under-construction Chinese structure can be seen on the north bank of the Pangong Lake.

Satellite image of the Khurnak Plain. (@Kyangs_Thang/Twitter)
Satellite image of the Khurnak Plain. (@Kyangs_Thang/Twitter)

The swift progress in the construction of the bridge and the harsh conditions at the construction site suggest that the Chinese could be using pre-fabricated material, prepared at a different site, to erect it.

Progress in the construction of the bridge. (@NatureDesai/Twitter)
Progress in the construction of the bridge. (@NatureDesai/Twitter)

The preparations for the construction of the bridge would have begun months before the first signs of it appeared in satellite imagery. This means that the preparations were underway when the Indian Army and the PLA were holding talks on resolving the standoff in eastern Ladakh.

The 13th round of the India-China corps commander-level meeting took place on 10 October, a few days after the construction of the structure appears to have begun. The meeting had ended without an agreement on disengagement at the remaining friction points in eastern Ladakh. The Indian Army and the PLA are yet to announce a date for the 14th round of talks.

How Will The Bridge Help China?

The PLA has a strong presence both north and south of Pangong Lake. On the north bank, it has large bases at Khurnak and Sirijap. Just south of the lake, it has bases on the bank of the Spanggur Lake. The Kailash Range, on which the Indian Army occupied tactically important heights in August 2020, is located just west of Spanggur Lake. The area had seen intense fighting during the 1962 war, when India had airlifted tanks to this area.

Areas on the north and south bank of Pangong Lake. (@NatureDesai/Twitter)
Areas on the north and south bank of Pangong Lake. (@NatureDesai/Twitter)

The bases north and south of the Pangong Lake are linked to large PLA establishments in Rutok, a Tibetan town located at the eastern end of the lake. An extensive road network exists on both sides of the lake to link these bases to Rutok. However, forces from the north can't be moved to the south or vice versa at short notice because of the lack of a bridge over the lake.

Chinese road network north and south of Pangong Lake. (@NatureDesai/Twitter)
Chinese road network north and south of Pangong Lake. (@NatureDesai/Twitter)

If PLA's forces from the north of the lake have to move to areas south of the lake, they can use boats to cross the water body. This option has its limits because a large force can't be moved on boats. The other way for Chinese forces to reach the south bank from the north bank is to first go to the town of Rutok, which is over 150 kilometres away, and then turn west from Rutok towards the Spanggur Lake.

The map below shows the detour that the Chinese forces heading from the north of the Pangong Lake to the areas on the south bank have to take.

Route from the north bank of Pangong Tso to the south bank. (@detresfa_/Twitter)
Route from the north bank of Pangong Tso to the south bank. (@detresfa_/Twitter)

With the construction of the bridge, the Chinese forces north and south of the bank can quickly cross the lake, which will cut down the distance between the Chinese forces located in the two sectors. The Chinese will not have to head to Rutok to reach the other side.

In the area south of Pangong Lake, China appears to be building a new road (see red dotted line in the map above) from Rutok to the north bank. This road will use the new bridge to significantly cut down the distance between the bases in the north and Rutok.

The shorter travel time between north and south will help China mobilise forces at short notice in the event of a crisis, like the one seen when the units of the Indian Army and the Special Frontier Force occupied the heights of the Kailash Range overlooking Chinese positions around the Spanggur Lake.

Prakhar Gupta is a senior editor at Swarajya. He tweets @prakharkgupta.



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