Winter has arrived in Ladakh, with minimum temperatures plummeting to minus 15 degrees Celsius. In the next one month, conditions will worsen, and heavy snowfall will cut off all road links into Ladakh. Mirroring the landscape, India-China talks on resolving the seven-month-long stand-off also appear entirely frozen.
There was a hint of a solution when some media reports spoke of a three-step disengagement process involving the Chinese stepping back from Finger 4 to Finger 8 and the Indian soldiers vacating the heights in the Chushul sector that were occupied in August. Unfortunately, the proposal appears to have become mired in a media war. The Global Times reacted almost immediately to say that “while the momentum brought by the eighth round of corps commander talk is good, the disengagement plan mentioned by the (Indian) media is not accurate”.
On the Indian side, the views from the strategic community are almost unanimous in their rejection of the proposed disengagement proposal. Their concerns are centred on two issues. The first is that we have gained an enormous strategic advantage by occupying the Chushul heights (on the Kailash Range) and that we must not vacate these positions. The second is that the disengagement process does not mention Depsang, where our soldiers are being blocked from patrolling up to their traditional areas.
The two courses open to India and China are either to continue with the existing stalemate or to arrive at a negotiated settlement. Any settlement would probably not fully satisfy either side, but it would result in significant disengagement and de-escalation. In deciding a future course of action, the cost to be incurred, and the risks associated with both the options, must be considered in a rational manner. Let us first consider the risks for both countries if the existing stalemate continues for the next few months. And I will start with the realities on the ground and move onwards to the larger geopolitical situation that could result from a status quo.
Let us be completely clear that the soldiers from both sides facing each other at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) will suffer enormously through the winter. The pictures and videos of how both armies have created heated infrastructure cannot hide this reality. Some shelters would have certainly been built at the bases, but a majority of the soldiers would be living in somewhat more basic conditions. One hour of gasping through oxygen cylinders (as shown on social media clips) would be of little help to Chinese soldiers operating at the very frontlines on the LAC.
It is likely that tales of their heroism will shroud this difficulty being faced by the soldiers. The soldiers will also stand firm, which could prompt both sides to continue their obdurate stand despite the human cost. Once the winter is over, there will be the inevitable narrative of which country has emerged stronger. The LAC would get more militarised the next summer with hardened attitudes among soldiers who will not forget their struggles through the winter.
Newfound confidence in having braved the winter could also result in greater risk-taking behaviour as the summer comes around. With no resolution, political leaders could be tempted to resort to military moves to exert additional pressure to get the other side to back down. The conflict space would not remain restricted to Ladakh but could expand to Sikkim and Arunachal. Some Chinese activity in the Dokalam area opposite Sikkim has already been reported.
Both sides will have to put larger resources into controlling an increasingly unstable border. With all protocols and agreements regarding border management having broken down, the strength of troops deployed along the LAC will increase. On the Chinese side, regular soldiers from the mainland, additional air force assets, and logistics efforts in Tibet would substantially increase. The Indian side would reciprocate, and we could reach a situation resembling the India-Pakistan Line of Control in terms of troop strengths.
The tensions cannot remain restricted to the borders. A sharpened rivalry between India and China could drive India into an informal US alliance, further exacerbating India-China relations. Some of the shift in the nature of our bilateral ties seems irreversible, but if tensions persist on the border, the downward slide will continue. With India and China severely impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, albeit in different ways, both countries can do without an extended military standoff.
With this backdrop, I turn to the Kailash Range and Depsang. There is a recurring narrative that the occupation of a few heights in the Kailash Range has provided us some enormous strategic advantage. In an age where surveillance is mainly through satellites, drones, and other electronic measures, the ability to eyeball the PLA Moldo garrison is merely a tactical plus and an irritant for the Chinese. Similarly, the occupation of heights above Finger 4 by the PLA is more for territorial jockeying rather than providing them any strategic gains. If both countries decide to go to war, these heights could be of some value, but neither country is even remotely considering this possibility.
Depsang is strategically important and cannot be ignored if a resolution in Eastern Ladakh is to be found. However, there appears to be no physical occupation by the Chinese in this area, and it is primarily a matter of resolving patrolling protocols. If some move forward can be made in the North and South Bank of Pangong Tso, we could commence some serious negotiations on the resumption of patrolling in this area.
Both India and China have to calmly assess the positives and negatives of moving ahead to break the deadlock in Eastern Ladakh. Any disengagement will necessarily mean the vacation of some positions occupied by both sides after May. Adopting a hardened stance may make for good nationalistic social media posts, but it is fraught with long term consequences for India-China ties. Greater introspection is required on the Chinese side because it initiated the military action that has brought the two countries to this state. They will also perhaps have to make a more significant concession for resolving the crisis.