Satellite photographs dated 11 April show that China’s bridge over Pangong Lake, which it has been building in Indian territory under its rule, is practically complete.
The construction of the bridge, which began last year on the north bank of the lake, has now reached the southern bank, according to high-resolution satellite imagery from Planet posted by satellite imagery analyst @NatureDesai.
The image shows the support structure needed for the bridge’s construction, implying that significant components of the bridge are still missing and that it will be operational for at least a few months.
Where Will The Bridge Be Constructed?
The bridge will be built near the Khurnak Fort, at one of the 134-kilometer-long Pangong Lake’s narrowest spots.
In June 1958, China invaded the territory around Khurnak Fort. During the 1962 conflict, China took possession of the Sirijap Complex, which is located west of the Khurnak Fort. India had posts at Sirijap during the conflict, while the Chinese had a base at Khurnak.
Further west of the Sirijap Complex lies the ‘Fingers’ area, which was taken by Chinese soldiers in May 2020, resulting to the standoff that is still ongoing in several parts of eastern Ladakh.
Since the 1960s, the People’s Liberation Army has had large bases at Khurnak and Sirijap. The position of Khurnak Fort, Sirijap Complex, and the Fingers area is seen on the map below.
China is constructing the bridge quite near to what New Delhi considers the India-Tibet boundary. According to India’s claim, the location is around 25 kilometres from Sirijap, where the Line of Actual Control (LAC) is located. Sirijap is located directly east of Finger 8, as shown on the map above.
The Chang Chenmo range is located north of Pangong Lake. The Indian Army refers to spurs that jut out from this range and run primarily perpendicular to the northern bank of Pangong Lake as ‘fingers.’ On the map above, these fingers are labelled 1 to 8.
India claims the LAC goes east of Finger 8 and controls the land up to the western edge of Finger 4, also known as Foxhole Point or Foxhole Ridge. The LAC, according to China, is close to Finger 2.
Indian patrols got up to Finger 8 before the stalemate began in May 2020, and Chinese patrols went up to the eastern side of Finger 4. The Chinese, who had a base just east of Finger 8, controlled the area between Finger 8 and the eastern half of Finger 4 throughout the standoff, preventing India from entering the area.
The Chinese destroyed the installations they had built between Finger 8 and Finger 4 as part of the disengagement agreement agreed in January-February 2021, and returned to their customary base east of Finger 8. Indian troops returned to their Dhan Singh Thapa Post, just west of Finger 3, after taking up new positions in response to China’s occupation. Between Finger 3 and Finger 8, a no-patrol zone was established.
When did the bridge’s construction begin?
Experts think the first evidence of the structure’s construction appeared in the last days of September and early October of 2021, according to satellite photos.
The under-construction Chinese structure can be seen on the north bank of Pangong Lake in the satellite view of the Khurnak Plain (the alluvial fan of a stream known as Changlung Lungpa; also called Ote Plain) below, taken on November 7, 2021.
The Chinese could be erecting the bridge using pre-fabricated structures produced at a distant location, based on the rapid speed of work and the hard conditions at the site.
Months before the first evidence of the bridge emerged in satellite images, preparations for its construction would have begun. This suggests that preparations were ongoing at the time the Indian Army and the PLA were holding talks in eastern Ladakh to end the standoff.
How Would The Bridge Help Chinese Soldiers?
Both north and south of Pangong Lake, the PLA maintains a substantial presence. It has substantial bases at Khurnak and Sirijap on the north bank. It has bases on the shore of the Spanggur Lake, just south of the lake.
The Kailash Range, immediately west of Spanggur Lake, is where the Indian Army occupied tactically significant heights in August 2020. During the 1962 conflict, when India airlifted tanks to the area, the area saw fierce action.
The camps to the north and south of Pangong Lake are connected to massive PLA bases in Rutok, a Tibetan town at the lake’s eastern end. On both sides of the lake, an extensive road network connects these bases to Rutok. However, due to the lack of a bridge over the lake, forces from the north cannot be quickly deployed to the south or vice versa.
PLA forces from the north of the lake can utilise boats to traverse the water body if they need to move to locations south of the lake. Because a large force with heavy equipment cannot be moved on boats, this method has limitations. The other option for Chinese soldiers to reach the south bank from the north bank is to first travel to Rutok, which is over 150 kilometres away, and then head west towards the Spanggur Lake from Rutok.
The map below depicts the detour that Chinese soldiers must take to get from the north bank of Pangong Lake to the south bank. With the completion of the bridge, Chinese soldiers north and south of the bank will be able to easily cross the lake, reducing the distance between their forces in the two sectors. To get to the other side, the Chinese will not have to travel to Rutok.
China looks to be constructing a new road from Rutok to the north bank of Pangong Lake in the area south of the lake (see red dotted line in map above). The new bridge will be used to shorten the distance between the bases in the north and Rutok on this road.
The reduced travel time between north and south will allow China to mobilise forces quickly in the event of a crisis, such as the one that occurred when Indian Army and Special Frontier Force personnel took the Kailash Range heights overlooking Chinese positions surrounding the Spanggur Lake.