In the run-up to the meeting, both India and China have ramped up deployments along their 3,488km shared border. Experts say it signals New Delhi’s ongoing shift in posture towards Beijing, from defensive to offensive, even as the two sides say they want to ease tensions
Military commanders from China and India are expected to hold a 13th round of talks on their border dispute by the middle of this month – but in the run-up to the dialogue, the nuclear-armed neighbours have ramped up deployments along their 3,488km (2,167 mile) shared border.
New Delhi has sent 50,000 additional troops to the Himalayan areas of the undemarcated Line of Actual Control (LAC), according to recent Indian media reports.
French-made Rafale fighter jets armed with long-range missiles will support soldiers on the ground in Ladakh, who are equipped with 105mm field guns and M777 howitzers. The M777s can be moved from one sector to another with Chinook heavy-lift helicopters.
In addition, the military also has 100 K9-Vajra howitzers. Much of the equipment has been redirected from India’s border with arch-rival Pakistan.
Meanwhile, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has stepped up night drills and brought in more advanced equipment close to the Himalayan border, including new PHL-11 truck mounted self-propelled 122mm multiple rocket launchers.
Last weekend, Indian army chief General Manoj Naravane, while on a visit to Leh, the capital of the north-eastern region of Ladakh, told local media that the military was matching Chinese deployments and was “quite well poised to meet any eventuality”.
Field trials of the K9-Vajra howitzers “were extremely successful”, he said, adding that the army had added an entire regiment of guns.
Former military commanders and experts say the deployment signals India’s ongoing shift in posture towards China, from defensive to offensive, even as both sides say they are seeking to further ease tensions in the Himalayan heights of Ladakh.
Earlier this year, New Delhi and Beijing agreed to disengage troops at two friction points – the Pangong Tso glacial lake in February, and Gogra in August. India’s focus for the upcoming talks would be for troops to retreat from the Hot Springs area.
“It is a very significant shift on India’s part,” said D.S. Hooda, a retired lieutenant general and former commander in chief of the Indian army’s northern command.
He said in the years before 2020 only one armed division – comprising about 15,000 combat troops and 8,000 support personnel such as engineers and members of medical and logistics teams – was deployed at the border as an offensive posture was not required. “But everything changed after the Chinese unilaterally tried to change the status quo at the border and the resulting clashes last year,” he said.
Any gesture by one side was now being interpreted as an offensive measure, he said, adding: “The Indian side is not willing to take an offensive position as it’s worried about being caught unawares.”
India and China, which fought a full-scale border war in 1962, have been locked in a troop stand-off since May last year. Tensions led to a deadly clash in the Galwan Valley on June 15, resulting in fatalities on both sides.
This year’s disengagement agreements have prevented the recurrence of major clashes, but Gautam Bambawale, a retired diplomat who served as India’s ambassador in China from 2017 to 2018, said the deployments showed “the situation is dangerous and can turn to conflict at a moment’s notice”.
“It seems to me that China does not intend to withdraw troops from their current positions. Hence, this is going to be a long-drawn-out situation and India will have to play all its cards adroitly,” he said.
India has also begun publicising efforts to ramp up its border infrastructure, with government leaders inaugurating roads and bridges that can be used to facilitate troop movement.
Hundreds of people are now working to drill tunnels and construct bridges to connect the Kashmir Valley and Ladakh – which shares borders with Pakistan and China. A 6.5km tunnel, the first of four, is already completed, the Associated Press reported, adding that experts said it would provide logistics flexibility to the military.
Observers say this drive will be an irritant to Beijing, which maintains an advantage on its side of the border due to consistent infrastructure upgrades over the past two decades.
Manoj Joshi, a distinguished fellow at the Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation think tank, said New Delhi was also strengthening its deployment in the central sector of the LAC, along the Indian region of Uttarakhand. Indian media had reported that about 100 PLA soldiers had crossed into the Barahoti ridge in August, leading to questions on whether the central sector would also become an area of live bilateral conflict.
The Hindu newspaper on Sunday quoted Indian defence ministry officials as saying that the PLA’s pattern of large patrols was a way for China to assert its claim while also testing India across the LAC. The officials added that there was a need for better coordination between the army and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police to avoid surprises such as the Galwan clash.
Joshi said China had always had “fairly extensive” claims in Uttarakhand, and while these had remained dormant, the intrusions were a reflection of recent developments, with both sides maintaining forward positions even as they discussed disengagement.
India’s formation of two “strike groups” – detachments of between 30-50,000 combat troops – in Arunachal Pradesh, bordering China to the east, and Ladakh to the west signalled its “intention of fighting an aggressive battle should things go haywire,” he said.
When asked at a regular press briefing last week to respond to reports of India deploying more personnel at the LAC, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said New Delhi had “long pursued the ‘forward policy’ and illegally crossed the LAC to encroach on China’s territory”.
“China opposes any arms race in the disputed border areas for the purpose of competition over control,” she said.
Indian foreign ministry officials, however, blame the build-up of troops on China and say its refusal to disengage from border hotspots is the reason for rising tensions. Sushant Singh, a visiting professor of political science at Yale University and senior fellow at Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research, said the ongoing Sino-Indian tensions were part of the geopolitical context in which Beijing saw New Delhi as part of Washington’s camp.
With the revival of the Quad security arrangement involving the United States, Australia, India and Japan, any trust that remained between China and India had “eroded”, he said.
Singh argued that India’s deployments were meant to deter escalation, but acknowledged that these tactical moves were now being seen through a “strategic prism” by Beijing.
“The limited offensive options being created are of deterrence value, as deterrence through existing defensive options had evidently failed in 2020,” he added.
Hooda, the former army commander, said neither side was angling for conflict, but developments showed that both sides clearly needed a new set of confidence-building measures. He said the border with China was likely to become more “contested” in future, though not to the extent of India’s border with Pakistan where rival troops exchange fire at regular intervals.
“Both sides clearly need to disengage from the remaining hotspots … avoid armed clashes and avoid patrolling in disputed areas,” he said. “The whole idea is to keep the situation calm along the LAC and avoid escalation.”