The first deaths of soldiers on the disputed India-China border in more than four decades. The first acknowledged death of a Tibetan in the Special Frontier Force on the Line of Actual Control, the disputed border, ever. And, as of this week, the first instance of firearms being used by troops along the LAC since 1975.
Months after Prime Minister Narendra Modi insisted to the Indian public that there had been no border intrusion, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar will sit down with his Chinese counterpart in Moscow to discuss these developments, which many now fear could result in a war between the two nuclear-armed nations.
“This is one area my crystal ball is a little clouded,” Jaishankar said when asked about the India-China relationship, a day before he flew to Russia to take part in a Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit.
Jaishankar’s meeting with Chinese Foreign Minsiter Wang Yi on Thursday comes less than a week after Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh met his Chinese counterpart, also in Moscow. More significantly, it comes after confirmation of the first use of firearms on the Line of Actual Control by troops in more than four decades, with both New Delhi and Beijing accusing each others’ soldiers of firing in the air.
What is the background?
Tensions have been high between the two armies since May, when Chinese troops moved to take control of territory in Eastern Ladakh that had been patrolled by Indian soldiers for decades. The initial scuffles led up to a pitched battle – without firearms – in June that saw 20 Indian soldiers killed, with Beijing refusing to release casualty numbers on its side.
Attempts at military and diplomatic talks followed, with little success, although authorities on both sides periodically claimed that the two armies were disengaging and deescalating. Modi and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party sought to downplay the incidents, with the prime minister insisting that there had been no intrusion and the government refusing to offer details despite reports that the Chinese were in control of huge swathes of territory previously patrolled by India across various sectors.
The Hindu reported in August that intelligence reports had informed the Indian government that Chinese troops are currently in control of as much as 1,000 square kilometres of territory that New Delhi claims lie on its side of the LAC.
What happened over the last fortnight?
Amid this backdrop, news emerged on August 31 of an offensive by Chinese troops seeking to occupy heights on the southern bank of the Pangong lake. Because of the lack of access to the region, most of the reporting in the media is based on government or military sources, leaving an uncertain picture of what has actually taken place.
According to the Business Standard, the Chinese occupied two summits called Helmet Top and Black Top, giving them commanding positions in the area. The Economic Times, however, reported that Indian soldiers “stalled a possible Chinese advance in the area”, though the tensions led to troops being deployed to occupy heights and take commanding positions on both sides of the Pangong lake, which have been tense since May.
A counter-maneuver in response to the Chinese actions led to the death of Nyima Tenzin of the Special Frontier Force, which was initially raised as a covert force of Tibetan troops who could operate behind Chinese lines in the event of wider conflict. Bharatiya Janata Party General Secretary Ram Madhav even attended Tenzin’s funeral – a rare acknowledgement of this force, seen as a clear sign to Beijing – although later in the day he deleted a tweet about the sacrifice made by the soldier on what he referred to as the “Indo-Tibetan border”.
On September 7, news emerged that shots had been fired in the air along the LAC, making it the first acknowledged use of firearms between the two armies since 1975. Both India and China accused each others’ soldiers of being responsible, with Indian media – citing military and civilian sources – claiming that Chinese troops had fired in the air after they were prevented from advancing on to Indian positions.
That incident has left the situation extremely tense on both sides of the Pangong lake, with the two armies in extremely close proximity with each other and heavy deployments all across the region.
“Significantly, Indian soldiers deployed in South Pangong, where the Indian army pre-empted a Chinese effort to unilaterally alter the Line of Actual Control, have been given robust rules of engagement where they can respond with deadly force in the event that Chinese infantry soldiers close-in to their positions,” reported NDTV, offering a number of other details about the government’s assesment of the situation.
It is this situation, in which troops continue to jostle for commanding positions with no let-up from the Chinese side despite military and diplomatic talks, that prompted HS Panag, a retired Lieutenant General who led the Indian Army’s Northern Command, to say that India, having taken the initiative over the last week, “should be prepared for a violent reaction.”
“In my assessment, to begin with, it would be localised action in the Chushul Sector. However, such an action is likely to spiral into a limited war...
I foresee a repeat of 1962, with a counter-attack to regain Black Top and then evict us from Helmet and Gurung Hill...
I assess that the PLA’s reaction will come as soon as its reserves are moved forward because it does not want our defences to become stronger. With 11 days gone, I expect the reaction any time hereafter.”
What happens next?
It is this volatile situation that Jaishankar and Wang Yi will be discussion on Thursday in Moscow. The Indian external affairs minister has made it clear that New Delhi is not willing to engage other concerns – such as India’s recent banning of apps with Chinese connections, or its efforts to put fetters on investment by Chinese firms in the country – if the border situation is not addressed first.
“The state of the border cannot be delinked from the state of the relationship,” Jaishankar said earlier in the week. “At this moment, I note that this very serious situation has been going on since the beginning of May. This calls for very, very deep conversations between the two sides at a political level.”
Any question of talks or for that matter military conflict between the two sides comes with something of a deadline imposed by the climate of the region. The troops are in position in extremely high altitudes, between 4000-6000 metres at some of the key positions, which turn extremely inhospitable once winter sets in, in November.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian acknowledged this on Tuesday. “We all hope our troops get back to their camping area and there won’t be any more confrontation in the border areas,” the spokesperson said. “You know that place has a very bad natural condition and it is above a height of 4,000 metres... In winter this is not good for humans to live. So we hope, through diplomatic and military channels and through consultations on the ground, we can achieve disengagement as soon as possible and reach consensus.”
Despite this, reports have suggested both militaries have made preparations to dig in for the winter if the diplomatic and military talks end up coming to naught or, worse, end up pushing both countries into a war.