India-China talks on Ladakh border making little headway

By now it should be clear to everyone that there can be no “negotiated settlement” of the border problem because the Chinese want settlement on their own terms

Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: Social Media)
Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: Social Media)

Barun Das Gupta/IPA

It is almost seven months that the Indian and Chinese armies are finding themselves in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation in eastern Ladakh, with no possibility of an early de-escalation or disengagement in sight. China finds that any attempt to further encroach into Indian territory will mean war. China, with all its military superiority, does not want to get into a war with India. India finds that the territory that it claims as its own and the Chinese claim to be theirs and which they have militarily occupied, cannot be taken back from the Chinese without a war which India fights shy of.

So far, as many as eight rounds of talks have been held between local army commanders of India and China. The last two rounds saw the participation of officers of foreign ministries of both the countries. Preparations are afoot for holding a ninth round. Why have all the eight round of talks failed to break the impasse? It is because India finds totally unacceptable the terms and conditions being dictated by China for de-escalation. China wants both Indian and Chinese armies to move back in equal measure. If accepted, it will mean India will retreat within its own territory while China, even after falling back, will remain in considerable possession of large chunks of Indian territory.

On the night of August 29-30, the Indian army, in a surprise move, occupied six strategic hilltops including Magar hill, Gurung hill, Rechan la, Rezang la and Mukhapari. India also occupied two other hill tops, Black Top and Helmet Top which the Chinese claim to be on their side of the LAC. The occupation of the hill tops brought about a great strategic change in the situation in India’s favour in eastern Ladakh. The Chinese were below us. We were over them and we could watch all movements of their infantry and artillery, tank regiments, etc. We could now subject them to intense shelling whenever we wanted to.

As precondition of disengagement and de-escalation, China wants India to vacate these hilltops. Naturally, the Indian army is in no mood to oblige the Chinese. China is wary of creating a situation that may lead to an armed confrontation between the two sides. The Chinese side knows it is a terrain in which it will be suicidal to provoke the Indian army which is far better trained and more experienced than them in mountain warfare.

China’s military objective is to take possession of the entire landmass right up to Karakoram Pass so that the proposed China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) cannot be threatened by India through the land route. If China succeeds, Daulat Beg Oldie (DBS) with its airstrip at an altitude of 16,700 feet (the highest in the world) will come under Chinese control. India cannot let that happen under any circumstances.

Meanwhile, the winter has already set in and will intensify during the next few weeks till the mercury touches about 40 degree Celsius. Then it will be a different of war attrition. Men posted in the forward positions will have to be frequently changed. Reports suggest that it has already begun in the Chinese army. Both sides will have to be war-ready, knowing full well that there could be no war during the winter. Both countries will have to spend, indeed waste, enormous amounts of money to keep about fifty thousand soldiers on each side in the inhospitable terrain and in freezing cold.

In Ladakh, where exactly do we stand? Neither here, nor there, it would seem. The Chinese will not vacate on their own and we cannot take the plunge by resorting to force. Gradually, the present status quo will become the ground reality and that will be to China’s advantage. China will never give up its long-range strategic objective in the region. It may pause temporarily (as it has done now) but bide its time for the next thrust.

By now it should be clear to everyone that there can be no “negotiated settlement” of the border problem because the Chinese want settlement on their own terms. Today it is Ladakh. Tomorrow it may be Arunachal Pradesh which China claims is “Sothern Tibet”.

It is expected that in the next few weeks, the Biden administration’s China policy in general and its position on the situation in Ladakh in particular will be clear and help India formulate its policy for breaking the continuing stalemate there. To allow the stalemate to continue will mean that the Indian land that China has occupied after May will be permanently theirs.

Seen in the context of India-China relations, the recent visit of Indian army chief Gen. Manoj Mukund Naravane’s visit to Nepal earlier this month to assuage possible hurt feelings in Kathmandu was timely. As far as India’s northern borders on the Himalayas are concerned, India has to have Nepal on its side vis-à-vis China. Fortunately for India, the pro-China and anti-India policy of Prime Minister K. P. Sharma Oli has come in for sharp opposition within the Nepal Communist Party by the other group led by Pushpa Kumar Dahal alias Prachanda. Naravane’s talks with Oli were positive. India should do all it can to wean away Nepal from the sphere of Chinese influence in its own interest.

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