by Kunal Purohit
As the snow melts in the Himalayan heights along the disputed border between India and China, analysts and military officials warn warmer weather could lead to renewed conflict. For the past year, thousands of troops have been locked in a stand-off at various points along the 3,488km (2,167-mile) Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India’s Ladakh in the west and Arunachal Pradesh in the east, bordering China’s Xinjiang, Tibet and Aksai Chin regions.
Both sides have disengaged troops and artillery from the banks of the glacial Pangong Tso lake. However, Indian Army chief General M.M. Naravane earlier this month said there had been “disengagement but no de-escalation”. Naravane, speaking to Indian outlet CNN News18, said 50,000-60,000 Indian troops remain deployed along the LAC. “Both sides are observing the disengagement in letter and spirit. There has been no transgression of any kind and the process of talks is continuing,” he said, referring to the 11 rounds of talks between the countries’ senior military and diplomatic officials.
He added, though, that India had kept troops along the entire front and “[they] have to be ready to be deployed in the long run too”.
The winter, when temperatures drop to minus-40 degrees Celsius, was a natural peacemaker. Both sides suspended patrols and eased troop deployment due to the conditions.
Now, as summer arrives in the Karakoram mountain range along the India-China border, both sides have restarted patrols into forward areas, strengthening logistics and adding infrastructure along the de facto border. “Summer is when activity in these regions increases,” said D.S. Hooda, a retired lieutenant general who was formerly chief of the Indian Army’s northern command that includes Ladakh and who oversaw the 2016 surgical strikes against Pakistan.
“When activity in the forward area increases and suspicion is on both sides, [when] the LAC is not marked and patrolling is taking place, there can be arguments and differences over even 100-200 metres (328-656 feet) [of territory].”
This will raise the risk of “local incidents which would then spiral out of control”, he said.
Hostilities between the nuclear-armed neighbours boiled over in May 2020, leading to a skirmish at Pangong Tso. In June, an incident in the Galwan Valley left at least 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese troops dead. The possibility of further conflict remains a sensitive issue for the Indian government, which in February agreed to a piecemeal disengagement process. It prompted criticism among Indian analysts and military experts, who said the plan addressed Galwan and Pangong Tso but not other major areas of potential friction, such as Hot Springs, Gogra and the Depsang Plains.
The Hindu newspaper last week quoted a high-level source saying a minor face-off occurred in the first week of May between Indian and Chinese patrols in the Galwan Valley. The army denied any incident.
“The article seems to be inspired by sources who may be trying to derail the ongoing process for early resolution of issues in eastern Ladakh,” the army’s statement said.
The Indian government is poised to approve the construction of a new tunnel on the Nimmu-Padam-Darcha road, which stretches nearly 300km (186 miles).
Once complete, the tunnel will allow all-weather access connecting Ladakh to Manali in Himachal Pradesh. The army has also reportedly accelerated construction of all-weather outposts for additional troops to be deployed along the border.
Meanwhile, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has established a new joint air defence system combining the army’s air defence units with air force assets in Xinjiang. It also inducted four new weapon systems in the same region, including self-propelled mortars, eight-wheeled armoured vehicles and heavy rocket launchers. According to an Indian Army officer, who declined to be named as he was not authorised to speak on the matter, summer is the busiest period for the military to prepare for the “harsh winter ahead”.
Ladakh’s altitude ranges from 2.3km-5km (1.4-3.1 miles) above sea level. During winter, forward areas are cut off as snow makes roads inaccessible and flights are able to land for only a few hours a day, if at all.
The officer, who served in the region on logistics and operations, said the period between winters is known as the “campaigning season”. Preparation includes strengthening infrastructure – such as roads, oil depots, air fields and cellular towers – as well as arranging for supplies of men and machinery, and organising logistics such as accommodation, rations and perishable food supplies.
“We need to arrange for everything, from water supplies to batteries for night-vision goggles,” he said, adding that increased activity in forward areas can fuel suspicion on the other side of the border.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian in October said India’s measures to strengthen border infrastructure were “the root cause of tensions”.
Although immediate tensions at Pangong Tso have eased, Hooda said it remained a potential flashpoint.
“The Pangong Tso freezes during the winter,” he said. “But now, as the snow melts, both sides will carry out boat patrols.”
After China last year deployed armed assault boats on the lake, India fast-tracked its acquisition of 12 fast-moving boats fitted with advanced surveillance facilities.
In China, though, reports about the border stand-off have dismissed claims that the PLA has begun exercises in the eastern Ladakh region. Commentators have cited India’s coronavirus crisis as a more pressing concern for the country.
During a webinar on Wednesday, Yubing Sheng, a research analyst at the Washington-based Stimson Centre, said China would prefer to maintain the status quo as it confronts geopolitical challenges from the US and its own issues with Taiwan and Hong Kong.
“It does not want to open multiple battlefronts, especially with India,” Sheng said. “The border conflict with India is probably not the priority for China.”
Sheng added that Beijing was more broadly concerned about India seeking closer ties with the US and its allies.
“China tries to discredit this relationship by shaping the US as an unreliable partner,” Sheng said. “The border issue is mainly tactical. What is more concerning is India’s stance in this triangular relationship between China, US and India.”
Yet India remains concerned about China’s military activities close to the LAC, such as “live fire” drills the PLA reportedly conducted last week in Xinjiang. China’s Global Times tabloid said the drills were to test the military’s recently acquired rapid-fire mortars.
Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, the director of the Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation, said these drills improved China’s battle-readiness.
“Such drills help the PLA test how quickly they can mobilise their men and equipment and mount military operations,” she said. “They also help them test their border infrastructure, their logistics, their cellular networks.
“This has helped reduce the time that the PLA would take to mobilise its men and resources on the border from four or five months to a few days.”
In January 2020, the PLA conducted a major military drill in the Tibet autonomous region, which borders India, involving tanks, heavy artillery, anti-aircraft missiles and helicopters.
“India assumed that they were engaged in military exercises in Tibet but because they were so close to the LAC, they could be mobilised very quickly when the stand-off started,” Rajagoplan said.
Hooda said the Indian Army would be determined to avoid a repeat of this “surprise”.
“That’s why you will find more proactive actions and a little more aggression,” he said. “The potential for something inadvertent to happen is there.”