It has been described as a dialogue, the first high-level meeting in months between the Indian and Chinese foreign ministers to address the ongoing border assaults that have pushed the two nuclear-weapon countries to the brink of war. .
But those who hoped Wednesday’s meeting would help break a year-long stalemate in which 200,000 troops had accumulated on both sides of the Himalayan border must remain dissatisfied.
There was one point of agreement, however. As Wang Yi, Chinese Foreign Minister, noted, “India-China relations are still at their lowest.”
In June last year, after months of growing tensions along the Indo-Chinese border in the Himalayan region of Ladakh, 20 Indian soldiers and four Chinese soldiers were reportedly killed in the deadliest clash between the two. country for over 50 years. Forbidden to fire with weapons, the two sides instead fought on the precipice of the icy mountain of the Galwan Valley in medieval fashion, using spiked clubs and engaging in hand-to-hand combat, several soldiers falling to death.
The clash did not result in full declarations of war, but promises of de-escalation and multiple rounds of failed military talks were instead overshadowed by a year of strengthening troops, artillery and infrastructure on both sides. of the 2,100-mile border unlike any other time in history, including when China invaded India in 1962.
Indian army officials say the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is getting more aggressive with each passing day. Although the recent skirmishes between the two sides have been denied by the Indian government, army officials told the Guardian that the situation in areas of eastern Ladakh, including the Galwan Valley and the hot springs , remained extremely tense.
“Every month there are two to three clashes in these areas,” said another army officer stationed in the area, information corroborated by local police and intelligence officers.
“To avoid further escalations, we started to fence off some areas around Galwan, but the Chinese opposed it and we had to remove it,” said another officer.
The Defense Ministry and the military did not respond to requests for comment.
Indian army officers described the military build-up on the Ladakh border as “like never before”. Government sources corroborated reports that an additional 50,000 troops, as well as artillery and combat aircraft, including the Russian-made MiG-21, had been deployed.
As a sign of India’s shift in military priorities, some of the additional troops on the Chinese border, including Ladakh and the states of Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh, came from the border with Pakistan, which for decades was the border with Pakistan. most choppy in India.
The biggest test for both sides was surviving the harsh winter, where temperatures fell below 40 degrees. Yet Indian officers spoke of staying the course with pride, even when it was so cold the fuel in the tanks froze. Despite the freezing temperatures, soldiers must stay in tents that can be moved quickly.
“We should have had prefabricated living spaces given the inclement weather,” said an Indian army commander stationed in the area. “But due to the unpredictability of Chinese movements, we rely on tents because they can be moved quickly when needed. “
While Indian army officers say they cannot compete with China’s high-tech infrastructure, they have sometimes admitted to copying their way of life. “For example, we saw Chinese people digging trenches and then pitching tents,” said an army officer. “We realized it helps warm the canopy and since then we’ve been doing it that way. “
For the people of the Indian state of Ladakh, who spent a year seeing soldiers, tanks, helicopters and heavy artillery brought along the border, the fear remains palpable.
“I hope war never breaks out here,” said Dolma Dorjay, who grew up in the village of Chushul near a sprawling military base along the actual Line of Control. [LAC], the disputed unmarked border between India and China. “But preparations seem to be unfolding for a war. “
Before the clash in Galwan, Dorjay and most of the villagers, who are tribes Changpa cattle ranchers, took their cattle into the vast and vast valleys without thinking of the border and would freely mingle with the shepherds on the Chinese side. “We would trade cattle, rugs and more with the people on the other side,” he said.
Sonam Tsering, another resident and former local councilor in Chushul, said the situation along the border was the most militarized one can remember in the village, with two armies appearing ready to attack, especially in areas of eastern Ladakh.
“Our elders say that men and machines were not deployed like this even during the 1962 war,” he said. “The Chushul military base has grown several times. Now people are not allowed to approach the border and tourists are banned from visiting. “
Durbuk is another strategic military base in eastern Ladakh that has grown considerably. Residents say hundreds of new tents have been pitched in recent months to accommodate more and more arriving soldiers, while new structures have been put in place to protect tanks and larger vehicles.
Deldan, who operates a guesthouse in the village of Durbuk, described how “during the night we see large convoys of army trucks and tanks heading for the border.”
In some of the most tense areas, a buffer zone has been agreed between Indian and Chinese troops to prevent troops from coming to blows, and according to the Chinese Foreign Minister, frontline troops have “disengaged in Galwan Valley and Pangong Lake Area ”. But locals say this does not reflect the reality on the ground and reject any discussion of de-escalation.
In Lake Pangong, locals say India has not regained the territory where the Chinese have encroached. “The land we once owned is now the buffer zone,” said Padma Yangdog, a resident of Meerak, a village opposite an area of Chinese encroachment. “How did they [Chinese troops] moved back? “
As made clear when Jaishankar and Wang met on the sidelines of a meeting of foreign ministers in Tajikistan on Wednesday, India and China still have very different views on the border situation.
Jaishankar said it was only with China’s de-escalation and disengagement from the border that the once-cordial bilateral relationship could resume. Wang, however, said “it is not China’s responsibility” to solve the problem, and appeared to call on India to accept the current status quo in the interest of good relations. According to Wang, despite the massive presence of troops, “the situation in the Sino-Indian border area has generally calmed down.”
Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in Delhi, said it was clear that India and China “now find themselves in a difficult military stalemate, and the whole border has become a hot border.” .
“The Chinese have tried to push India back through frantic military escalation, but the Indians have refused to bow,” he said. “The fact that the Indians managed to survive the harsh Himalayan winter makes it very likely that this crisis will not end anytime soon. “
According to Chellaney, “the only way to break the deadlock is for the Chinese to decide to start a war. But, as the Chinese realize, even a total conflict risks ending in another stalemate. “
“India refusing to back down, China’s choice is either to discreetly roll back its intrusions into areas where the biggest dead ends are taking place,” he said, “or to let this impasse continue.”