Indian media reported on October 16 that New Delhi and Beijing have exchanged substantive proposals for a complete military disengagement in Ladakh. The Times of India notes that the proposal exchange – covering all existing locations of standoffs – “is seen as a serious movement between the two sides.”
The Indian military and the People’s Liberation Army have been locked in a tense crisis along the India-China Line of Actual Control — a de facto though undefined border between the two countries — since early May this year. It is estimated that both sides have deployed around five divisions of troops each in the area, along with heavy weaponry including air assets and tanks.
In a military operation involving India’s secretive Special Frontier Force, staffed by ethnic Tibetans, at the end of August, India had occupied multiple peaks along the LAC. Those gains – along with improving the army’s surveillance capabilities as well as providing tactical advantage in the event the crisis turned hot – could also form the basis of a quid pro quo even if these peaks are on India’s side of the LAC. It is plausible the latest proposals for military disengagement involve India vacating those peaks in exchange of Chinese troops returning to their April positions. If the latest talks succeed, they would eventuate a rare instance of a fait accompli being undone.
Thus far, several rounds of military commanders’ and ministerial talks have failed to end the Ladakh crisis.
Speaking at a public event on October 15, Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar had noted that “discussions are on; what is going on is something confidential between us and the Chinese.” He added that “[t]here is not very much that I am in a position to say in public. I certainly do not want to prejudge it.” This cautious tone gives ground for optimism.
Earlier this week, for the first time since the standoff with India in Ladakh started more than five months ago, China offered its views on its cause. Speaking at a press briefing on October 13, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian noted that the “root cause” of the current tensions lies with India’s “ramping up infrastructure development along the border and stepping up military deployment.” The day before, Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh had inaugurated several new bridges in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh and elsewhere along the LAC. Zhao was responding to a question about India’s LAC infrastructure push.
Zhao also repeated a line that is becoming increasingly – and from India’s point of view, disturbingly – common, that “China does not recognize the Ladakh Union Territory illegally set up by the Indian side.” Since India’s decisions last August to revoke Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy and carve out two federally controlled territories from it – Ladakh being one – China has asserted it would not recognize the reorganization. India has consistently maintained that the decision – which China describes as “unilateral” – would not affect the LAC or respective territorial claims. India and China both claim Aksai Chin in eastern Ladakh, though China controls the territory.
Whether the current tensions are indeed due to Indian infrastructure activities near the LAC – bear in mind, China has not claimed that they were across the LAC, in Chinese territory – or due to India’s new push toward territorial consolidation in Kashmir cannot be established for sure. The fact of the matter, however, is that under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India has renewed its focus on border connectivity. A former external intelligence chief of Modi’s – who, since September 18, is the new head of India’s geospatial intelligence agency – noted in June that “the increased strategic infrastructure [along the LAC] has rattled China to no end …”
Government sources had told an Indian media outlet that India’s road construction activity, albeit in territory it controls, may have led to the first India-China clashes in early May. Others in India have argued that China’s push is a reaction to India’s construction of the 255-km long Darbuk-Shyokh-Daulat Beg Oldie (DSDBO) all-weather road. The road connects Leh, Ladakh’s capital, to the strategically vital DBO airstrip – the highest such in the world – very close to the LAC.
Experts have, for some time now, warned of increased military friction between India and China as India ramps up its infrastructure along the LAC. While a noticeable infrastructure gap remains in place – China having a years-long lead in similar efforts – India’s renewed commitment to building better connectivity in its frontiers will almost inevitably lead to more tussles with China even if the current crisis is resolved.