Satellite image a 'worrying' sign amid China border tensions

·4-min read

A “worrying” satellite image has emerged of new Chinese structures near the site of a deadly border clash with India in the western Himalayas, heightening concerns about further flare-ups between the nuclear-armed neighbours.

Indian and Chinese military commanders agreed on Monday to step back from a weeks-old standoff at several locations along their disputed border following the June 15 clash in the Galwan Valley in which 20 Indian soldiers were killed.

The satellite images, showing new construction activity in the week following the brutal hand-to-hand combat, underline the challenge of disengagement and the risk the accord could still fall apart because of overlapping claims in the arid territory.

The pictures shot on Monday by US-based space technology firm Maxar Technologies show what appear to be extensive Chinese structures on a raised river terrace overlooking the Galwan River.

Pictured is a satellite image with a red circle around new constructions set up by China in the Galwan Valley.
A satellite image shows new constructions set up by China in the Galwan Valley. Source: Reuters/Maxar

India says the area where the structures have sprung up are on its side of the poorly defined, undemarcated Line of Actual Control or the de facto border between the two Asian giants.

China says the whole of Galwan valley, located at about 4300m, is its territory and blames Indian troops for triggering the clashes.

But India's foreign ministry accused China of causing the tensions by starting military deployments, and warned relations between the world's two most populous nations could be undermined if the standoff continues.

The neighbours have blamed each other for a June 15 battle in the Ladakh region in which 20 Indian soldiers were killed while China suffered an unknown number of casualties.

The new activity includes camouflaged tents or covered structures against the base of cliff, and a short distance away, a potential new camp under construction with walls or barricades. The camp was not seen in pictures made available to Reuters the previous week.

Nathan Ruser, a satellite data expert at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said the buildup suggested there was little sign of de-escalation.

"Satellite imagery from the Galwan Valley on June 22 shows that 'disengagement' really isn't the word that the (Indian) government should be using," he said in a post on Twitter.

On the Indian side, defensive barriers can be seen in the latest images which were not visible in pictures taken in May.

China's foreign ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the apparent activity.

India's defence ministry also did not respond to a request for a comment.

Indian military officials have previously said they will be closely monitoring the planned disengagement process and verify it on the ground.

"There is a trust deficit so far as the Chinese are concerned," said former Indian army chief Deepak Kapoor.

"So if they are telling us verbally they are ready to pull back, we will wait to see it on the ground. Until then the armed forces will be on alert."

New satellite image a ‘worrying’ sign

An expert in Ladakh affairs and former Indian diplomat, P Stobdan, told the BBC the new construction seen in the satellite images was “worrying”.

“The [Indian government] has not released any pictures or made a statement, so it’s hard to assess,” he said.

“But the images released by private firms show that the Chinese have built infrastructure and have not retreated.”

The image emerged after India’s Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar accused China of seeking to “erect a structure in Galwan Valley on our side of the Line of Actual Control”.

The Line of Actual Control is a boundary limit that separates territory controlled by India from Chinese-controlled areas.

 Indian fighter jets roared over a flashpoint Himalayan region on June 24 as part of a show of strength following what military sources say has been a Chinese takeover of contested territory.
An Indian fighter jet flies over Leh, the joint capital of the union territory of Ladakh. Source: AFP

According to the BBC, on Wednesday India’s foreign minister and Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi reaffirmed “both sides should sincerely implement the understanding on disengagement and de-escalation that was reached by senior commanders on June 6”.

President of Chengdu Institute of World Affairs Dr Long Xingchun told the publication both India and China could de-escalate tensions.

India claims it has had had "to undertake counter deployments" because of the Chinese buildup, India's foreign ministry spokesman Anurag Srivastava said.

Military commanders have held talks and their foreign ministers have also discussed ways to end the showdown.

"Peace and tranquility in the border areas is the basis of our bilateral relationship," said Srivastava, demanding that China follow up on its pledge to cool tensions.

"A continuation of the current situation would only vitiate the atmosphere for the development of the relationship."

With AFP and Reuters

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