It was described as a dialogue, the first high-level meeting in months between the foreign ministers of India and China to address the ongoing border aggressions that have brought the two nuclear-armed countries to the brink of war.
But those who hoped that Wednesday’s meeting would help break a year-long stalemate during which 200,000 troops have accumulated on both sides of the Himalayan border would not be satisfied.
However, there was a point of agreement. As Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, noted, “India-China relations are still at a low point.”
It was in June last year that, after several months of escalating tensions along the India-China border in the Ladakh Himalayan region, 20 Indian soldiers and reportedly four Chinese soldiers were killed in the deadliest clash between the Chinese. two countries in more than 50 years. Forbidden to shoot weapons, the two sides instead fought on the icy cliff of the Galwan Valley mountain in medieval fashion, using spiked clubs and engaging in hand-to-hand combat, with several soldiers falling and dying.
The confrontation did not result in full-fledged declarations of war, but promises of de-escalation and multiple rounds of failed military talks were overshadowed by a year-long build-up of troops, artillery and infrastructure on both sides of the 2,100-mile-long stretch. border as at any other time in history, even when China invaded India in 1962.
Indian Army officials allege that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is becoming more aggressive with each passing day. Although the Indian government has denied the recent skirmishes between the two sides, army officials told The Guardian that the situation in areas of eastern Ladakh, including the Galwan Valley and Hot Springs, remained extremely tense.
“Every month there are two or three clashes in these areas,” said another army officer stationed in the area, information corroborated by local police and intelligence officials.
“To prevent further escalation, we started fencing off some areas around Galwan, but the Chinese objected and we had to remove it,” another official said.
The Defense Ministry and the Army did not respond to requests for comment.
Indian army officers described the military rally on the Ladakh border as “like never before”. Government sources corroborated reports that an additional 50,000 troops have been deployed, as well as artillery and fighter jets, including the Russian-made MIG-21.
In a sign of the shift in India’s military priorities, some of the additional troops on the Chinese border, including Ladakh and the states of Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh, are coming from the border with Pakistan, which for decades was the most turbulent border in China. India.
The biggest test for both sides was surviving the hostile winter, where temperatures fell below 40 degrees. However, the Indian officers spoke of staying the course with pride, even when it was so cold that the fuel in the tanks froze. Despite the freezing temperatures, soldiers must stay in tents that can be moved quickly.
“We should have prefabricated living spaces given the severe weather,” said an Indian army commander stationed in the region. “But due to the unpredictability of Chinese movements, we are relying on the tents as they can be quickly relocated when needed.”
While Indian military officers say they cannot match China’s high-tech infrastructure, they are sometimes allowed to copy its way of life. “For example, we saw the Chinese dig trenches and then put up tents in them,” said an army official. “We found that it helps warm the canopy and we’ve been doing it that way ever since.”
For locals in the Indian state of Ladakh, who have spent a year witnessing soldiers, tanks, helicopters and heavy artillery carried along the border, the fear remains palpable.
“I hope war never breaks out here,” said Dolma Dorjay, who grew up in the town of Chushul near a sprawling military base along the royal line of control. [LAC], the disputed unmarked border between India and China. “But preparations seem to be going on for a war.”
Before the confrontation in Galwan, Dorjay and most of the villagers, who are tribal Changpa Cattle herders, they led their cattle to the vast and wide valleys without thinking of the border and mingled freely with the herdsmen on the Chinese side. “We would trade cattle and carpets and more with the people on the other side,” he said.
Sonam Tsering, another Chushul resident and former local councilor, said the situation along the border was the most militarized anyone in the village could remember, with two armies appearing ready to attack, particularly in areas of eastern Chushul. Ladakh.
“Our elders say that men and machinery were not deployed like this even in 1962,” he said. “The army base in Chushul has been expanded several times. Now people can’t get close to the border and tourists can’t visit it. “
Durbuk is another strategic military base in eastern Ladakh that has been greatly expanded. Locals say hundreds of new tents have been erected in recent months to accommodate more and more arriving soldiers, while new structures have been built to protect tanks and larger vehicles.
Deldan, who operates a guest house in Durbuk village, described how “at night, we see large convoys of army trucks and tanks heading towards the border.”
In some of the most tense areas, Indian and Chinese troops agreed on a buffer zone to prevent troops from receiving blows and, according to the Chinese Foreign Minister, front-line troops have “withdrawn from the Galwan Valley and the Pangong Lake area “. But locals say this does not reflect reality on the ground and they disdain any discourse of de-escalation.
At Lake Pangong, locals say India has not regained territory where the Chinese invaded. “The land that belonged to us now is the buffer zone,” said Padma Yangdog, a resident of Meerak, a village facing an area of Chinese invasion. “How have [Chinese troops] Moved back? “
As was clear when Jaishankar and Wang met on the sidelines of a meeting of foreign ministers in Tajikistan on Wednesday, India and China still have markedly different views on the border situation.
Jaishankar said that only with China’s de-escalation and disengagement from the border can previously cordial bilateral ties be resumed. Wang, however, said that “the responsibility is not on China” to solve the problem, and appeared to ask India to accept the current status quo in the interest of good relations. According to Wang, despite the heavy troop presence, “the situation in the border area between China and India has generally eased.”
Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the Delhi Policy Research Center, said it was clear that India and China “are now caught in an uncomfortable military stalemate, and the entire border has become a hot border.”
“The Chinese tried to protect themselves from India through a frenzied military rally, but the Indians have refused to give in,” he said. “The fact that the Indians managed to withstand the harsh Himalayan winter makes it very likely that this crisis will not end soon.”
According to Chellaney, “the only way to break the stalemate is if the Chinese decide to start a war. But, as the Chinese realize, even the total conflict is likely to end in another stalemate. “
“As India refuses to back down, China’s choice is to quietly reverse its intrusions in the areas where the biggest fighting is taking place,” he said, “or let this stalemate continue.”