As crisis drags on, are Beijing and New Delhi digging in for permanent militarisation of LAC?
Both China and India say they want to resolve their military stand-off in the Himalayas. But 19 months after the first showdown, are Beijing and New Delhi digging in for what appears to be a permanent border confrontation?
This is the question analysts are asking amid a deadlock in military-level talks after the 13th round of talks in October ended in a bitter blame game.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned against “mutual exhaustion” with neighbouring India in a virtual meeting with New Delhi’s outgoing envoy to China earlier this month. Both expressed hope that tensions would ease soon.
But even if progress towards a resolution is made, the hardening battle lines may remain for good, experts say, as it will be difficult to walk back from the current effort by both sidse to entrench themselves firmly along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the unmarked 3,488km border between India and China.
Over the last year, both sides have engaged in frenetic construction of roads, garrisons and airstrips.
Observers said the urgent airlifting of logistical winter supplies suggests both militaries would step up troop levels throughout the year which could result in a possible uptick in conflict between Chinese and Indian soldiers.
Last Tuesday, Eric Garcetti, the incoming US ambassador to India, said that the South Asian nation was situated “in a tough neighbourhood”, without naming China.
“I intend to double-down on our efforts to strengthen India’s capacity to secure its borders and deter aggression through counterterrorism coordination,” Garcetti told a US Senate panel during his confirmation hearing.
New Delhi has already indicated its belief that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is unlikely to vacate its deployment along the LAC any time soon.
Indian army chief General MM Naravane said in October that a “large-scale build-up” on the Chinese side and the infrastructure development that such a build-up needed, meant that “they [the PLA] are there to stay.”
“If they are here to stay, we are there to stay too,” he added.
The Indian army and the air force also conducted a joint drill, called “Operation Hercules” last month, to boost logistics supplies to the troops in the northern sector and to augment winter stocking in operational areas.
The PLA, on the other hand, has deployed an advanced long-range rocket launcher to the Himalayas and built underground shelters to protect troops and weapons.
Last month, Global Times, the Chinese nationalist tabloid, reported how the PLA had been ramping up its winter infrastructure and had “fundamentally solved” logistical issues by taking “advantage of a golden period for infrastructure creation” before the harsh weather set in.
The Indian government had raised concerns about growing Chinese presence and infrastructure-creation earlier this month, including the construction of multiple lateral roads towards the LAC that connect the highway G219 as well as building roads close to the sites of some of the present conflict such as the Finger 8 in the Pangong Tso area in eastern Ladakh.
“The sustained focus by India and China on boosting their infrastructure along the LAC certainly suggests that the nature of the border dispute has changed,” said Kyle Gardner, a historian and senior associate at the Washington-based McLarty Associates.
This build-up translated into a “sustained, broader militarisation of the LAC,” said Gardner, who is the author of The Frontier Complex: Geopolitics and Making of the India-China border, 1846-1962.
“The sustained troop presence and build-up of infrastructure will make small-scale conflict more likely,” he warned.
This is already evident. In September, The Economic Times reported that over 100 PLA soldiers had entered 5km into Indian territory and “damaged some infrastructure, including a bridge” before returning.
In January, Indian and Chinese troops had violently clashed along the LAC in India’s Sikkim region in which soldiers from the two sides suffered injuries.
A shifting conflict
Lieutenant general (retired) Rakesh Sharma – who in 2013 served in the region as the commander of the Indian army’s Fire and Fury Corp – believed that disengagement talks notwithstanding, China’s troop presence in the disputed frontier was likely to be permanent.
“The villages, the air fields, the roads and the construction of garrisons shows one thing: China has shifted the forces in permanence so that it doesn’t have to bother about getting troops from down in the plains any more,” Sharma said.
“In some ways, China has thrown down the gauntlet to India, saying that this would be the template it would follow in all the territories the two have disputes over,” he added.
Gardner, the historian, agreed that the prolonged stand-off in Ladakh could increase such risks.
“The greater the opportunities for troop contact along a disputed border, the greater the risk of misunderstandings and violence [even without firearms], especially when the location of the LAC remains imprecise at a number of segments.”
Gardner said that the “focus of the conflict” could even shift from Ladakh to the eastern sector (along the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh) where “the crisis has greater risks of escalation”.
Traditionally, China has also steadfastly refused to recognise Arunachal Pradesh as a part of Indian territory. In October, Indian and Chinese soldiers were locked in a brief face-off in Arunachal Pradesh over differences in each other’s perception of the LAC.
The incident drew rebuke from Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian, who called Arunachal Pradesh a state “unilaterally and illegally established by the Indian side”.
A report by the US Department of Defence last month pointed to China’s construction of a 100-home civilian village in “disputed territory between the PRC’s Tibet autonomous region and India’s Arunachal Pradesh state” and called it “a source of consternation” for New Delhi.
“Despite the ongoing diplomatic and military dialogues to reduce border tensions, the PRC has continued taking incremental and tactical actions to press its claims at the LAC,” the report said, referring to the People’s Republic of China.
Beijing said the report “disregards facts and is filled with bias”.
Sharma, the retired general, said that Chinese construction of villages is only likely to extend the conflict to newer areas.
“Through these villages, China has pushed civilian villages, without moving forces to the border.
“With this action, it has forced Indian armed forces to deploy in forward areas, without China having to do the same.”
‘Scared for our lives’
The prolonged stalemate in Ladakh, however, is causing increasing hardships to locals.
In Chushul, one of the last Indian villages before the LAC, locals said the military stand-off has hit their livelihoods. A 30-year-old, who did not want to be named due to safety reasons, said that livestock farmers in the area were badly affected.
Last August, the Indian army captured a series of strategically located heights in Chushul in a covert operation. However, it left the heights as part of an agreement with the PLA to disengage from the Pangong Tso’s northern banks.
Despite the withdrawal, the Chushul resident said that strict curbs were in place.
“Due to security reasons, we are often not allowed to rear our livestock on some of these heights,” he said.
“This affects us a lot because there is no vegetation in our village and the only place our livestock can find food is on these heights.”
Local lawmaker Konchok Stanzin, who represents Chushul in the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC), said that the Indian authorities need to make alternative arrangements for such farmers.
In a letter to defence minister Rajnath Singh, Stanzin argued that locals should be rehabilitated to Ladakh’s capital Leh as the situation was “unprecedented” and “warlike”.
“Each time when a bust-up happens, we are all scared for our lives,” Stanzin told This Week in Asia.
“The fear might have now reduced, but there is still anxiety here. We keep thinking, what if such a stand-off erupts again?”