An army that aims to be a 21st-century fighting force is currently dug in behind rock shelters in eastern Ladakh, eyeballing the enemy the way soldiers did in Europe during the start of the First World War a century ago. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aims to convert itself into a force that uses machines and information technology and networks to fight wars—‘mechanisation and informatization’—by the Chinese Communist Party’s centenary in 2021. But next year, the PLA will possibly still be embroiled in a soldier-to-soldier standoff with the Indian army in eastern Ladakh, an area it chose to begin a large face-off in May this year when it moved two divisions up to the line of actual control (LAC). While its logistics tail will be ‘mechanized and informative’ to last through the region’s brutal winter at heights over 15,000 feet, the tip of the spear, however, will still be PLA soldiers carrying guangdaos or blade spears (as revealed in recent photographs released by the Indian Army).
Yet another round of talks between Indian and Chinese Corps commanders, the seventh in five months, ended on October 12 without any resolution in sight. An anodyne joint statement released a day after agreed to ‘maintain dialogue and communication through military and diplomatic channels, and arrive at a mutually acceptable solution for disengagement as early as possible’. October is a defining month in Indo-Chinese relations. Exactly a year ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping met at the UNESCO world heritage site at Mahabalipuram in their second informal summit. And October 20 will mark the 58th anniversary of the start of the 1962 India-China border war.
Both countries are now closer to a border skirmish than at any other time in the last three decades. At least a brigade’s worth of heavily armed soldiers, on both sides, are now facing off along multiple locations in eastern Ladakh. At a minimum of three points along the Kailash Range—a series of hills south of Pangong Lake—the soldiers are within shouting distance of each other. On September 8, bullets were fired on this border for the first time in 45 years. That is why the joint statement’s exhortation to maintain ‘dialogue and communication’ and ‘not to turn differences into disputes, and ‘jointly safeguard peace and tranquillity in the border areas’ is a tenuous but critical guarantor that a shaky peace will not break out into full-fledged hostilities.
The border crisis was triggered off by the PLA in late April when it moved two infantry divisions—nearly 30,000 soldiers, backed by tanks and artillery—and positioned them along the LAC with India in eastern Ladakh. An Indian counter-move in late August occupied strategically significant heights in Chushul.
Government sources suggest that the talks are deadlocked over which side will pull back first, and from where. In the north, the PLA continues to deny the Indian Army access to five patrolling points on the Depsang Plains near the Karakoram Pass, the Hot Spring area, and upto Finger 8 on the north bank of the Pangong Lake. China wants the Indian Army to withdraw from positions occupied by alpine troops and Tibetan Special Frontier Force (SFF) since late August. In two locations—Gurung and Magar Hill—forward positions are held by both sides, with the PLA camped in the open just meters away from Indian sangars (rock shelters). These points also have the greatest risk of an armed clash breaking out. The talks, interestingly, are being held at the Moldo-Chushul Border Personnel Meeting Post, which is overlooked by the very features occupied by the Indian army.
In the Chushul sub-sector, the Indian Army believes the multiple positions it holds on the heights are far more tactically significant than the area between Finger 4 and 8 currently occupied by China’s PLA. From these vantage points (like Gurung and Magar Hill), the Indian army can now dominate the entire southern bank of Pangong lake. Government sources say that from this location, troops can also observe China’s Moldo garrison—a PLA operations base near the shores of the Spanggur lake. All of these heights have been occupied because of their utility in a military clash. When a location can be directly viewed, it can be accurately targeted by artillery fire in times of war. A recent example was in 1999 when the Pakistani Northern Light Infantry on the heights in the Kargil sector directed artillery shells to interdict the Srinagar-Leh highway. These heights also afford the Indian Army very strong launch pads in case of an offensive into Tibet. From these vantage points, the Army can also defensively screen its own Brigade headquarters in Chushul. “Before August, it was a one-sided game (in Chushul), now it is two-sided,” a senior army official says. “Any movement (by the PLA) can be countered any movement can be mirrored,” he says.
The army has completed its advanced winter stocking, or piling up of provisions, to enable the 80,000 troops it now maintains in Ladakh to last through winter. It is in the final stages of creating accommodation to protect its soldiers from the harsh cold, where temperatures drop to -40 degrees. “Restoration of status quo ante is no longer beneficial to us,” says an Army official. “[Talks] should now [decide] the settlement of the international boundary.”
In a series of talks at the military and political levels over the last few months, both sides had agreed to disengage—pull troops back from confrontation spots—and later de-escalate by withdrawing them from the LAC. But in the current situation, with the PLA continuing to maintain offensive positions along the LAC, both steps look increasingly difficult. “We cannot disengage till there are verifiable mechanisms on the ground to ensure the PLA doesn’t reoccupy the heights. We cannot de-escalate, because they have positioned two divisions on the LAC,” says Lt General Rakesh Sharma, former 14 Corps Commander.
Five months since the standoff began, the reasons for the PLA’s coercive deployment still remain fuzzy. News agency IANS reported foreign minister S. Jaishankar telling his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, at the September 11 talks in Moscow, that China had not provided a credible explanation for the deployment, which violated every single peace and tranquillity border protocol agreed to by the two nations. On October 13, Beijing provided some clues of why it had done so, saying it did not recognize the Ladakh Union territory “illegally set up by India” (last October). “I want to make it clear that China does not recognize the Ladakh Union territory illegally set up by the Indian side and the Arunachal Pradesh,” foreign ministry spokesperson Lijian Zhao said. The spokesperson was responding to defense minister Rajnath Singh’s October 12 inauguration of 44 bridges along India’s borders, seven of them in Ladakh. “We stand against the development of infrastructure facilities aimed at military contention along the border area,” Zhao said.
What was left unacknowledged was the fact China had moved first on border infrastructure, completing an extensive network of over 36,000 miles of black-topped roads on the Tibetan plateau and finishing the 1,956-km-long Tibet-Qinghai railway line before it began a deliberate policy of transgressions along the LAC in 2006. That policy culminated in the giant multi-pronged incursions in the summer of 2020. The policy might have helped Beijing assert its claims on the 1959 claim line—a term used by its then-premier Zhou Enlai, but never accepted by India. “India has never accepted the so-called unilaterally defined 1959 Line of Actual Control,” external affairs ministry spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said on September 30. “[Our] position has been consistent and well-known, including to the Chinese side.”
For now, India continues to deliberate its military and diplomatic options, with the armed forces refining their contingency plans to fight a two-front war with China and Pakistan. Closer military ties with the United States, Japan, and Australia—the other three so-called ‘Quad countries’—are a distinct possibility as the Ladakh chill will haunt India-China ties for a long time. Yun Sun, senior fellow and co-director of the East Asia Program and director of the China Program the Stimson Center outlines Beijing’s options. ‘Between tactical gains on the disputed border and the strategic loss of alienating India, China’s choice on Ladakh comes with significant baggage,’ she wrote in a piece in Global Asia, a quarterly magazine of the Seoul-based East Asia foundation.