The Line of Actual Control in Ladakh continues to remain tense, even after 20 months of stand-off that witnessed 13 rounds of military talks, along with parallel diplomatic efforts. As talks progress into 2022, the prospects of optimism on an approaching thaw appear minimal.
This is the 21st month since the military stand-off between Indian and Chinese troops began in eastern Ladakh in early May 2020 on the undemarcated Line of Actual Control (LAC), the de facto border between the two countries. 13 rounds of corps commander-level talks were held on the ground by the both sides to diffuse tensions, from June 2020 to October 2021. The 14th one in this series and the first of 2022 is likely to happen this week, on January 12, as per the latest media reports.
The 13th round of military-level talks, which was held in October last year, remained inconclusive, resulting in a stalemate, as both sides failed to agree on each other’s conditions for disengagement that ended up with putting the blame on each other for the foundering of talks. While the Indian side maintained that their ‘constructive suggestions’ were not agreeable for the Chinese side, which in turn dismissed Indian demands as ‘unreasonable and unrealistic’.
Areas where disengagement has been achieved so far
Of over half-a-dozen friction points across the 489-km-long Ladakh section of the LAC, disengagement has reached only in four areas so far – the Galwan Valley in the weeks following the deadly clash of June 2020, the north and south banks of the highly contested Pangong Lake in February 2021, and the Gogra Post in August 2021.
The next immediate point awaiting disengagement is the Hot Springs, which was already put for discussion in the 13th round of military talks. While so, the legacy areas of Depsang Plains and Demchok-Chumar that existed even before the current stand-off began in May 2020 are yet to be resolved. A conclusive and complete de-escalation of all tensions along the LAC in Ladakh requires disengagement from all the friction points as a pre-requisite.
While Depsang is a 972-sq-km stretch of land located close to the Daulat Beg Oldie airstrip-cum-post, which is the northern-most tip of Indian-controlled territory in Ladakh and located close to the Karakoram Pass in the north, Chumar and Demchok lies further down in the south. In Demchok, the Chinese PLA has prepped in “civilian” tents on the Indian side of the LAC in a bid to make fresh land claims.
Six decades ago, Depsang was briefly occupied by China during the 1962 war and was also the site of a three-week-long stand-off in 2013 that came as a result of China blocking the Indian Army of its access to those areas that fell within its traditional patrolling limits. The year that followed witnessed a 16-day stand-off in Chumar and Demchok, in which Chinese territorial transgressions occurred even while Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping in his home state of Gujarat.
The currently ongoing standoff is the third one occurring in Ladakh in a decade’s time, while another one happened in the Doklam tri-junction with Bhutan in the Eastern Sector, five years ago.
Non-conducive turn of events
Even though the disengagement of troops along both the banks of Pangong Lake was achieved eleven months ago, followed by the Gogra Post later, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) continues to exhibit its reluctance to take the edge off the tensions in the reaming areas. There are several recent instances to corroborate this belief.
Satellite imagery data that came out last week showed that the Chinese has been building a 500-m-long bridge over the contested Pangong Lake, lying just 25 kms away from the LAC in Ladakh and at an altitude of over 14,000 ft., but within the territory under their control, connecting its north and south banks.
This bridge will considerably reduce the commuting time between Chinese border posts in the north and south banks of the lake located at a distance of about 200 kms with each other, thereby reducing the time from 12 hours to 3-4 hours.
This move has been made, ostensibly, to keep the pressure on India up, as far as operational preparedness is concerned. Pangong Lake’s north bank was the triggering point of the current stand-off that began in May 2020 as Chinese troops transgressed into the area. India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has stated that the new bridge is built in areas that have been under the Chinese PLA’s ‘illegal occupation’ for around 60 years.
Previously, in August 2020, the Indian Army briefly gained a tactical upper-hand over the Chinese PLA following the capture of the previously unoccupied Kailash heights, lying south of the Pangong Lake. These positions allowed Indian soldiers to have a dominating view over China’s Moldo post located in the south bank.
In days that followed, Indian soldiers also took over positions above their Chinese counterparts on the north bank of Pangong Lake. The unprecedented high-altitude deployment continued throughout the approaching winter until February 2021, when an agreement to disengage on the banks of Pangong Lake was reached by the both sides.
Ever since Xi Jinping took over as China’s Paramount Leader a decade ago, China has either reinforced existing claims or pressed for newer claims in various points in the Ladakh-Aksai Chin borderlands along with the other sections of the LAC, mostly in a bid to further its domestic nationalistic propaganda. The bolstering of border infrastructure by China and the build-up of troops in the claimed areas has triggered India’s reciprocal moves in the past several years by doing the same in the areas under its own control.
In the past seven years, India’s Ministry of External Affairs has made it clear that the Indian government has enhanced the budget for the development of border infrastructure in a significant manner and has completed more roads and bridges than ever before.
A new land border law of China that was passed in October, last year, and had become effective since the first day of January this year is also seen as provocative to India as it is intended at empowering the PLA to enforce the China’s historical claims over the disputed land border areas with India and with two other small, land-locked Himalayan states – Bhutan and Nepal – by any means necessary.
Despite the short-lived bonhomie of exchanging sweets and gifts on New Year’s Day, tens of thousands of Indian and Chinese soldiers continue to remain on both sides in the high-altitude terrain, throwing light on the ineffectiveness of existing confidence-building measures on both sides, including agreements, protocols and working mechanisms intended at ensuring peace and tranquillity along the border areas.
The domestic angle of the border dispute
The Sino-Indian border dispute is playing out heavily in the domestic politics of each of the countries. For instance, on New Year’s Day, China released a propaganda video, aimed at its domestic viewers that showed the unfurling of a large Chinese national flag in the sensitive Galwan Valley with the pledge of protecting ‘every inch’ of Chinese territory. In response to this, a few days later, the Indian Army released photographs with Indian national flag in the Galwan Valley on its side of the LAC in a bid to reinforce its own claim and to counter Chinese propaganda.
The Chinese PLA, however, went a step ahead as its Western Theatre Command that oversees the border with India informed the Chinese people via its newly-opened social media account that it would randomly choose ten lucky netizens from those who reposted the notice and will send them ‘stones from the Galwan Valley’ as gift. On the other hand, in India, the political Opposition has raised concerns over Chinese actions in eastern Ladakh and has questioned the response of the Union government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The way ahead
2022 marks 60 years since India and China fought a bloody war in 1962, the only war fought between the two countries, which ended up with victory on the Chinese side. But, 2022 is totally different from 1962. Today, both sides have amassed massive military prowess over the years with the Chinese tend to possess an apparent logistical superiority. The nuclear dimension makes the dispute complicated today and neither of the countries can afford an escalation of the border dispute into a larger conflict.
The two Asian giants, both holding a billion-plus population each, seem to have been caught up in a looming spiral of security dilemma, as evident from the military muscle-flexing on the ground and the fast-paced build-up of infrastructure and troops in the border areas by both sides in the past several years.
The threat of yet another flare-up looms large throughout the LAC, wherein the possibility of the rise of new friction points also exists. The optimism that prevailed following disengagements at Pangong Lake and the Gogra Post last year has seemingly faded into oblivion as the new year dawned.
If the upcoming 14th round of military talks, having Hot Springs as the main agenda item, breaks down, Indian and Chinese troops are going to face yet another long winter, this year as well. The legacy friction areas of Depsang Plains and Demchok-Chumar are going to be the biggest test of diplomacy and dialogue whenever it is taken up for negotiations.
As the existing set of agreements and protocols to maintain peace and tranquillity on the LAC, since 1993, seemingly not taken in face value, the two countries should either rework on them or should seek for and find newer mechanisms for the aversion of a future clash or conflict, something that requires simultaneous efforts at the political and diplomatic levels along with continued military efforts on the ground, including a rebooting of confidence-building measures.
Today, the future of overall ties between India and China, including a fast-growing trade, is heavily dependent on the border question and how it is being carried forward. With the recent disturbing turn of events, particularly the rise of Chinese belligerent mentality fuelled by a nationalism-clouded optics at home and a prevailing sense of condescending superiority exhibited by the Chinese throughout its land and maritime neighbourhood, the Sino-Indian rapprochement still has a long way to go.
Meanwhile, Indian negotiators will particularly have a daunting task at hand in yet another year, in continuing to deal with an assertive China, keeping in mind the difficult goal of a complete de-escalation and the restoration of status quo ante along the LAC prior to May 2020.
At the same time, India’s military planners and the defence establishment will have to keep a close watch on its borderlands throughout the LAC and maintain its operational readiness round the clock for any eventuality arising out of a potential Chinese misadventure, yet again under the cover of the pandemic.