The marathon 14-hour talks between the corps commanders of India and China have not yielded a breakthrough. Both sides are adamant on their respective positions and are refusing to budge as the standoff in eastern Ladakh enters its fifth month.
China wants India to step back from the strategic heights in the Chushul subsector. India has made it clear there will be no movement anywhere till the Chinese agree to a time-bound roadmap on complete de-escalation.
But both sides have agreed to meet again, possibly as early as next week.
Sources say while talks continue, there is a clear realisation in the Army headquarters that the Chinese are here to stay and, like the Line of Control (LoC), the Line of Actual Control (LAC) will need to be patrolled through the year as well.
Unprecedented deployment of troops in eastern Ladakh could be the new normal.
Sources say the Chinese are ready to discuss everything except Pangong Tso. The blue waters of the pristine lake have started to freeze and the chill between the two nuclear-armed neighbours is only deepening. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) that has intruded 8 km in the Finger area has refused point-blank to go back to Finger 8 as India is demanding (‘Fingers’ here refer to the spurs extending to the banks of the high-altitude lake).
After Indian troops moved back to the Dhan Singh Thapa post at Finger 3, the Chinese have moved back to Finger 5 on the shore. But they continue to be present on the ridgeline. This is where they are eyeball to eyeball with India’s special forces who have occupied higher ground there. Their tactic of playing Daler Mehndi songs here to convey a sense of isolation to Indian troops isn’t working. Five thousand PLA troops are deployed in the North Bank. The Chinese have laid optical fibre cables and a helipad here.
At the South Bank in the Chushul subsector, India and China are occupying an equal number of strategic heights. China is ready to negotiate on Gogra and Hot Springs if India leaves its claim in Pangong Tso. “We have made it clear to the Chinese, we are not going anywhere from Pangong Tso. Either discuss Pangong Tso as well or don’t discuss anything," says a source in South Block.
India has made it clear that even if there is a resolution, it will not vacate heights like Magar Hill, Gorkha Hill, Gurung Hill and Mukhpari to protect “India’s territorial integrity".
The strategically vital Depsang Plains are on the talking table but the Chinese are refusing to step back to their pre-May positions. The PLA has moved 18 km into India’s side of the LAC to a place called Y-junction and is stopping India from patrolling five of it’s patrolling points.
Sources say what is very clear from the India-China military-diplomat meet is that 50,000 troops each from both armies will spend a brutal winter in eastern Ladakh, waiting for a resolution. That resolution is not expected anytime soon. “The corps commanders have spoken with each other for 75 hours now. They can speak for another 75 hours, but I think both know this is beyond their pay grade. The matter will be resolved only at the level of PM Modi and President Xi," says a source.
Meanwhile, a report authored by senior analyst Sim Tack for the geopolitical intelligence platform StratFor says Beijing has more than doubled its airbases, air defence positions and heliports at the LAC over the past three years. Tack has used satellite imagery to zoom into the exact scale of the build-up. He concludes that post the Doklam crisis of 2017, China has started constructing 13 new military positions including three airbases, five permanent air defence positions and four new heliports. The construction of three new heliports began in the middle of the current crisis. A clear indication of Chinese intent not just in Ladakh but all across the LAC.