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Are China and India breaking the deadlock in the Himalayas?

Screenshot 2020-11-14 071443
An Indian Army soldier stands guard near the Line of Actual Control. Photo: AFP

Six months into the high-altitude border stand-off between Chinese and Indian troops, a new disagreement has erupted between the two neighbours, only this time it’s over a purported resolution to the impasse.

Quoting senior sources in the government, the Indian media has been reporting since Wednesday that the two countries had agreed to break the deadlock and withdraw troops, tanks and artillery from the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the 3,488km undemarcated border between the two. The reports come just days after senior commanders from both militaries met for the eighth time since the stand-off began to resolve the border crisis.

On Thursday, however, the state-backed nationalist tabloid Global Times rebutted the reports, calling them “not accurate” and “not helpful for the two sides to reach their established goals”, quoting sources in the Chinese government.

The Global Times also said India’s “ideas about the LAC” were “unrealistic”, reflecting the deep divisions between New Delhi and Beijing around the current crisis. Its report quoted Qiao Feng, director of the research department at the National Strategy Institute at Tsinghua University, as saying that the information given to Indian media was “to pressure China as well as relieve the pressure on the Indians” ahead of the Hindu festival of Diwali on Saturday.

There was no official comment by China’s foreign ministry in its daily press briefing. On Thursday, Russia’s deputy chief of mission in India, Roman Babushkin, said that Moscow was “naturally concerned” over the tensions between China and India, and he prodded the two countries to engage in “constructive dialogue” while warning that the tensions between the two could be “misused by other players”.

Indian news reports, quoting military and government sources, had said that the Indian Army was considering a “Chinese proposal” to resolve the tense troop stand-off through a temporary disengagement of soldiers, artillery and firepower from their forward positions on the northern and southern banks of Pangong Tso lake, in eastern Ladakh.

The region around the lake has become the most active friction point between the two sides, with troops repeatedly clashing and even firing warning shots. Reports have suggested that tanks and other artillery are just metres away from each other in the region, while troops remain locked in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation.

The dispute began after troops from both sides clashed on the banks of Pangong Tso lake in early May, resulting in fatalities and sparking the long-running face-off at a number of points along the LAC that separates Ladakh from the China-controlled Aksai Chin region. While disputes over the border flare up every so often – both sides fought a short but full-blown war in 1962 – this year’s stand-off has dragged on even after close to 20 rounds of diplomatic and military talks aimed at resolving the crisis before the harsh Himalayan winter sets in.

When contacted, both the Indian Army and Chinese embassy in New Delhi refused to comment on the matter. However, Indian news reports said the two sides had reached a temporary solution where each would carve out a “no-patrolling zone” in the “Fingers” region of the northern bank of Pangong Lake. The region has high, finger-like mountain spurs above the water, and control over these spurs is disputed by both countries. While 

India believes that Fingers 1 to 8 fall under its territory, China has staked a claim to the area between Finger 4 and Finger 8.

Amid the current stand-off, Chinese soldiers, traditionally positioned at Finger 8, have now occupied areas that start at Finger 4 while Indian soldiers have been pushed to Finger 3. According to the current proposal, both sides would have to vacate the disputed region between Finger 4 and Finger 8 and neither side would be allowed to patrol the region.

According to Lieutenant General D.S. Hooda, who commanded the Indian army’s Northern Command and served in the region from 2012 to 2016, such a proposal might be mutually beneficial.

“Earlier, both sides had an understanding that both sides used to control this area,” he said. “So, both sides recognised this to be a disputed area.”

“In some ways, the proposal is somewhat of a restoration of that status quo.”

However, others worry that such a proposal would mean that India would end up with a curtailed patrolling area and, eventually, less territory under its control. Indian officials have publicly reiterated that New Delhi was pushing for both sides to go back to their positions they occupied before May this year, when the stand-off began.

“While it is definitely encouraging that both sides are talking and there is an attempt to reach a middle ground, at the end of the day it should not be a case of the Chinese taking two steps forward and one step back,” said retired Indian Navy Commodore C. Uday Bhaskar, currently the director of the Society for Policy Studies, a New Delhi think tank.

Reports in the Indian media have also said that the two sides are discussing a proposal for withdrawing forces from the southern banks of Pangong Lake, in the Chushul-Moldo region. Indian soldiers occupied strategic heights in the region on August 29.

The proposals, if true, could mean that while both sides will have to withdraw from forward positions, Indian forces will have to vacate these heights. Some military insiders, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that if not handled well, this could “squander” the tactical advantages Indian soldiers had gained by occupying the heights.

However, Hooda said such a compromise might not be such a bad trade-off. “If the Chinese soldiers are relocating behind Figure 8 on the northern bank in exchange for Indian soldiers vacating these heights, this quid pro quo is worh accepting.”

What worries analysts like Bhaskar is that these proposals only contain temporary reprieves, rather than a lasting solution, leaving the decades-old boundary dispute unresolved and festering.

Time, however, is running out for both sides. Harsh winter weather has already set in around the Ladakh region where troops are currently stationed. Temperatures now routinely drop to minus 20 degrees Celsius and lower, making it difficult for both countries to ensure a fully-functional logistical chain.

Hooda said the situation would only deteriorate with time.

“By December or so, pulling out troops will be very difficult because snow sets in and cuts off connectivity to these forward posts.”