A new Chinese bridge being constructed across the Pangong Lake is now more than 400 metres long and once completed, will give Beijing a significant military edge in an area which has been a key flash-point between India and China in Eastern Ladakh.
The bridge, which is 8 metres wide, lies just south of a Chinese army field base on the North Bank of Pangong where Chinese field hospitals and troop accommodations were seen during the standoff between Indian and Chinese troops in 2020.
Satellite images from January 16 indicate that Chinese construction workers are using a heavy crane to help link the bridge's pillars with concrete slabs upon which the tarmac will be laid. Given the extent of the construction, the bridge could be completed in a few months, though road access to Rutog - the main Chinese military hub in the region - will take longer to complete.
The construction of the bridge across the Pangong, first identified by The Print earlier this month, and shown here for the first time in high-resolution satellite imagery, gives Chinese forces the ability to quickly mobilise soldiers to either bank of the Lake.
Troops from the North Bank will no longer need to drive nearly 200 kilometres around the Pangong Lake to reach their base at Rutog. That journey will now be cut by approximately 150 km.
''Heavy machinery (crane) has also been set up to support the construction process that is continuing through inclement weather and snow,'' says Damien Symon, a GEOINT researcher at The Intel Lab. ''A fresh track is observed fusing the bridge to a road network near the Khurnak Fort (North Bank of Pangong), which further links it to a well-formed motorable network through the region northwards.''
While the new bridge has been constructed in an area held by China since 1958, it remains clear that India considers the construction of this bridge to be entirely illegal. It is located almost exactly along India's perception of the International Boundary in the sector. To this end, it is a ''potential stepping stone towards further infrastructure encroachment into the disputed territory or as an instrument of Chinese military logistics, it presents a more controversial picture,'' says Sim Tack, Chief Military Analyst at Force Analysis.
The External Affairs Ministry, which has been monitoring the Chinese construction activity, says, ''This bridge is being constructed in areas that have been under illegal occupation by China for around 60 years now. As you are well aware India has never accepted such illegal occupation.''
While New Delhi has ''increased significantly the budget for development of border infrastructure and completed more roads and bridges than ever before,'' as per the foreign ministry, it is clear that the new Chinese bridge across Pangong is a direct response to the Indian Army's aggressive move to occupy the Kailash heights in the South bank of the Pangong Lake in September 2020. At the time, Chinese military deployments in the area were significantly threatened by the Indian Army which ''forced them to redeploy troops from other locations through the strenuous time-consuming terrain around the lake,'' says Mr. Symon. Worried about Indian deployments on the ridges from where they could be targeted, ''Chinese forces initiated road construction projects snaking around the topography. These roads have now slowly branched towards the bridge, but have yet to be connected.''
Incase you're still wondering why the new bridge at #PangongTso matters, here's an explainer on its implications & potential advantages it holds for #China's troops in the area, very likely a lesson learnt from #India's maneuvers at Rezang La in 2020 https://t.co/wsQwQuHQT9pic.twitter.com/xoAzkWIhqY— Damien Symon (@detresfa_) January 4, 2022
While Indian and Chinese forces backed off from their hair-trigger alert and de-escalated tensions on both banks of Pangong Lake in February 2021, the construction of the new bridge is a clear reminder of how China continues to build up access in areas which it may consider as potential flash-points.
Indian and Chinese military leaders held a 14th round of military talks last week at Chushul-Moldo in Eastern Ladakh, in the same broad area described in this report, an area which saw some of the worst tensions in 2020. Though the talks failed to achieve any breakthrough, both India and China agreed to keep talking, a refrain heard time and again over the last two years with real progress being rarely reported.