The 12th round of Corps Commanders level talks between India and China on resolving the outstanding issues over the remaining friction points along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Eastern Ladakh is likely to take place in the last week of this month or early August, even as China and India both continue to consolidate their troops’ presence on either side of the border, informed sources have said.
The Chinese side had initially proposed 26 July as the date to hold the discussion but India’s Northern Command said it will be preoccupied with celebrating the annual Kargil Vijay Diwas that day and therefore sought another date. The exact date is likely to be finalised in a couple of days, sources added.
The decision to hold the 12th round comes in the wake of the agreement reached by both sides in the previous round of the Working Mechanism on Consultation and Coordination (WMCC) on Indian-China border affairs held virtually on June 25.
“In this regard, the two sides agreed to maintain dialogue and communication through the diplomatic and military mechanisms to reach a mutually acceptable solution for complete disengagement from all friction points so as to ensure full restoration of peace and tranquillity to enable progress in the bilateral relations,” a statement from the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) had said that time.
“The two sides will continue to work to promote further de-escalation of the border situation, avoid any recurrence of the situation on the ground and jointly maintain peace and tranquillity in the border area,” the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs had said in a separate statement. The two sides agreed to maintain high-level diplomatic communication to actively prepare for the 12th round of talks “at the level of military chiefs, and to determine the specific timing and arrangements through the border hotline as soon as possible,” it added.
Last week India’s External Affairs Minister Dr S. Jaishankar and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi met at Dushanbe on the sidelines of the SCO Foreign Ministers meeting where the Indian EAM made it clear that India sees the resolution of the Ladakh border standoff as a pre-requisite for normalisation of India-China ties in other areas. The Chinese side, however, wants to de-link the border issue from the larger relationship.
Imposing costs on China
Even as the diplomatic jostling continues, militarily both sides have revised their plans and deployments in Eastern Ladakh since the limited disengagement took place on the north and south bank of Pangong Tso in February this year. While India has deployed an additional division strength force and reorganised defences in Eastern Ladakh, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is furiously building permanent structures to house nearly 40,000 troops in Aksai Chin, traditionally only an area for holding summer-spring exercises.
Intelligence inputs estimate that the PLA has been forced to construct living quarters for its troops, dig trenches, build roads and create infrastructure in the barren, cold desert of Aksai Chin on either side of the crucial Tibet-Xinjiang Highway G-219 to ensure it is adequately defended. The G-219, connecting China’s two restive provinces, is a sensitive infrastructure in the Chinese mind. For years the Chinese PLA was secure in its knowledge that India does not have the wherewithal to even think of any aggressive intent in Aksai Chin but India’s sustained road, bridges and tunnel building in Ladakh over the past decade and the Indian military’s pivot from western borders to the northern frontier of late, is sure to have made China rethink about its strategy to secure Aksai Chin or at least deter any perceived Indian misadventure in the area.
The result: China’s Western Theatre Command putting in more resources closer to the Indian border than ever before. As latest reports and satellite imagery has indicated, China is building more airfields between Hotan and Rutog, constructing more living shelters for ground troops and creating permanent locations for its armour and artillery assets closer to the LAC across the frontier with India (rapid infrastructure coming up near Doklam in the Sikkim sector in the wake of the 2017 incident is one example). In Aksai Chin, the current pace and spread of construction indicate that China will permanently station troops in the inhospitable terrain. It can be looked at in two ways: one, China wants to coerce India militarily or it wants to make sure the lifeline to Xinjiang is not even remotely threatened.
Either way, the cost of building permanent military stations and maintaining them in the remote and hostile region will be substantial even for a country with deep pockets such as China. The recurring cost of maintaining the supply and logistics chain will surely be a heavy expenditure for the PLA. In sum, China has got itself into a situation where it now needs to allocate additional budget to relatively forward deploy its forces.
As the talks to resolve the problems at the remaining friction points in Eastern Ladakh continue, in the medium term, both sides will be looking to consolidate their deployments to overcome real and perceived gaps before the harsh winter sets in, in the high Himalayas. The remaining summer months till the end of October will therefore be a period of a cautious vigil.
Nitin A. Gokhale