As a tense “standstill” between Indian and Chinese armies along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh drags on, the possibility of a misunderstanding or accident triggering a larger conflict remains a concern despite an uneasy calm holding for the moment.
There has been no provocative action since the September 10 meeting between foreign ministers S Jaishankar and Wang Yi resulted in a “consensus” over not escalating and refraining from sending more front-line troops to the LAC. In particular, this means there have been no aggressive approaches by PLA troops as was the case after Indians surprised the Chinese by taking control of certain heights on the south bank of the Pangong Lake.
As things stand, the next meeting of military commanders is awaited after events related to China’s National Day, celebrated on October 1, are over. But in the meanwhile, the deliberation with which China has brought up the 1959 claim line, though fully aware that India has never accepted it, is seen as a toughening of posture, a digging in despite pledges to disengage and de-escalate.
The upping of ante has been noted by Indian planners, who see it as a challenge and a confirmation of their assessment that Chinese actions on the ground generate no trust — a point put across plainly by Jaishankar and defence minister Rajnath Singh to their counterparts. Figuring out if China’s foreign ministry is “on or off board” with the leadership or part of a ‘smoke and mirrors’ game is seen as besides the point. The ground situation remains very tense.
Hundreds of troops at close proximity create an unpredictable and volatile situation, said sources adding that nerves and suspicion can result in unintended consequences. There does not seem any possibility of a scale-down unless there is a substantive engagement at the apex level as other means are not working, they said.
There is confidence on the Indian side that its military is better trained in mountain warfare and China’s upper hand in “gizmos” has limited utility along the LAC. Having altered the “status quo” in the Pangong area to its advantage, India is not hurrying to provide China a face-saver even if it does not want a costly conflict.