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Is Ladakh going to be the new Kashmir?

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Soldiers load an Indian Air Force Chinook helicopter with supplies at a forward airbase in Leh, in the Ladakh region. Photo: Reuters

Five months into a stand-off on their disputed Himalayan border, India and China may need to face an uncomfortable new reality – that the ‘roof of the world’ could become a permanently contested militarised zone much like disputed Kashmir, an area once dubbed by former US president Bill Clinton as the “most dangerous place in the world”.

As bitter winter descends in eastern Ladakh, where thousands of troops from the two countries have been facing off since May, India and China are preparing for an enduring stalemate, having failed to make a breakthrough despite at least 18 rounds of military and diplomatic talks as well as high-level political engagements.

While the Indian army has been working to ease the logistical woes of stationing thousands of troops in the freezing conditions, China’s People’s Liberation Army has equipped its soldiers with thermal shelters.

On Monday, Corps Commanders from the two sides met for the seventh time to discuss ways of disengaging troops and de-escalating tensions on the ground at Chushul, on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the de facto border separating the two countries in the Ladakh region. The talks were continuing at the time of writing.

Military veterans and analysts believe the winter preparations by both sides are indications of a stalemate and that a volatile, militarised LAC resembling the Line of Control (LOC) dividing India and Pakistan will emerge.

The 740km (450-mile) LOC, in the central and western part of Jammu & Kashmir state, marked the positions of the Indian and Pakistani forces when a ceasefire was announced in a 13-day war between the two countries in December 1971. Despite the ceasefire, the LOC has remained violent and bloody, and is often referred to as one of the most heavily militarised regions in the world.

The two sides frequently fire bullets and mortar shells at each other, snipers are posted at various points and landmines often explode.

“For a soldier posted there, it is literally like a battle field, with continuous tension,” said Lieutenant General (retired) DS Hooda, who commanded the Indian army’s Northern Command and served in Kashmir from 2012 to 2016.

Unlike the LOC, the LAC, separating India and China, has been relatively peaceful. Despite a full-blown war in 1962 and troop stand-offs, the line has not seen sustained military deployment by either side. Despite both countries being nuclear-armed, a host of border management agreements and protocols had until recently ensured that neither side deployed military force along the de facto border.

Major General (retd) Ashok Mehta said the two countries had found a strategic framework to ensuring peace and stability.

“It was known as the great India-China model, where even a border dispute could not interfere with the development of bilateral ties,” he said.

All that, he said, was now changing. “The framework has now broken down.”

Alongside the framework, mutual understanding and trust have also collapsed.

Neither side, Mehta said, was ready to back down, with mutual distrust remaining. “So, even if the Chinese decide to withdraw troops without withdrawing from the positions they have achieved, India won’t withdraw. It will remain where it is,” he said.

This meant the two sides were looking at a more sustained, permanent deployment along the LAC, a “LOC-isation of the LAC.”

Hooda said that the LAC would resemble the LOC in some aspects. “You will see heavier deployment and you will also see certain tension on both sides, but it might not go to the extent where you will see both armies having artillery exchanges,” he said.

In fact, many believe that the two sides have accepted this outcome, implicitly.

“I think the understanding both sides have reached is that we will not make it worse, but we will both stay here [at the forward positions],” said Dr Geeta Kochhar, assistant professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Centre for Chinese and Southeast Asian studies. Kochhar said such an understanding was “not a peaceful solution at all”, because tensions could always flare “at a new flashpoint or a new location”.

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Military trucks carrying supplies move towards forward areas in the Ladakh region. Photo: Reuters

More worrying, Hooda said, was the fallout of the border agreements and accords that held peace along the LAC, despite the disputed border. For instance, a 1993 agreement between China and India permitted only a very low level military deployment, without any show or use of force.

Hooda said over the years both sides had reached an understanding about how soldiers could continue patrolling disputed areas. “There were protocols laid down with a process –[such as] showing banners to each other to resolve disputes amicably.”

However, the current stand-off saw these protocols break down – while patrolling disputes ended up in violent skirmishes, both sides had resorted to firing shots, a violation of protocols that prohibited any use of gunfire or force.

Hooda said the lack of such an understanding kept the door open for conflicts.

“Now, what will happen is even routine patrolling movements close to the LAC will be viewed with a great deal of suspicion and this will create tension.”

An unending stalemate 

Both sides have had 18 rounds of meetings at the military, diplomatic and political level since June, with the two foreign ministers and defence ministers of both countries meeting in Moscow last month, on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).

At the Wang Yi-Subrahmanyam Jaishankar meeting, the two sides released a joint statement agreeing to “ease tensions” by “quickly disengaging” from their positions. More than a month later, little has changed on the ground.

Mutual suspicion has only increased. On Monday, Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh criticised China, saying it seemed to be collaborating with Pakistan “as if a border dispute is being created under a mission”. He made the statement while inaugurating 44 bridges along the border areas, including several that boost connectivity to the LAC.

Last month, Chinese spokesperson Wang Wenbin said China was opposed to such infrastructure development, which was for “the purposes of military control”.

Mehta said a solution to the stand-off seemed unlikely. “China has achieved its political aim of promulgating the 1959 claim line,” he said, referring to a claim first spelt out by former Chinese leader Zhou Enlai that year which has been consistently opposed by India.

Enlai had, in a letter to then Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, proposed that “each side withdraw at least 20km at once from the so-called McMahon line in the east and from the line up to which each side exercises control in the west.”

According to Mehta, India was running out of options. “What India wants, which is restoration of the status quo ante, will never be achieved.”

However, Kochhar said not all was lost. Pointing to the recent ministerial-level meetings, Kochhar said an upcoming virtual BRICS summit was a chance to engage. The summit, expected to be held on November 17, will feature Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

While no engagement between the two leaders has been confirmed, there is speculation in New Delhi’s foreign policy circles that the two could have a virtual engagement on the sidelines of the summit.

“The fact that we are attending the BRICS meet shows that there is no widening of the gap but, instead, a shrinking of the issues between the two,” she said.

Hooda, however, said an agreement to disengage troops might not bring the situation back to normal. “Even if there is some agreement, the distrust, mistrust and suspicion between the two armies will remain.”