The top commanders of the Chinese and Indian armies met on Monday at Moldo, on the Chinese side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), in a fresh bid to ease their months-long stand-off – with New Delhi expected to maintain its stance that Beijing initiated the stand-off and therefore must take the first steps towards disengagement.
The meeting, which began in the morning and was still ongoing 12 hours later at 9pm local time, came more than a week after talks between the countries’ foreign ministers in Moscow, where they reached a five-point consensus to “quickly disengage [troops] and ease tensions” along the 3,488km (2,167 mile) LAC, the disputed border that separates the two countries. Experts said Monday’s talks carried immense significance for the fate of the border stand-off that has seen New Delhi and Beijing at loggerheads for the past five months.
There is also a ticking clock: by the end of the month, winter is coming to the high-altitude Himalayan mountain region of Ladakh, with temperatures set to plummet as low as minus 60 degrees Celsius in areas where soldiers have repeatedly faced off. A failure to resolve the stand-off by then will mean a need for both sides to post thousands of troops at forward positions in increasingly harsh weather.
The Indian delegation for Monday’s meeting was headed by Lieutenant General Harinder Singh of the 14 Corps, which is based in Leh, the largest town in Ladakh. It also included a diplomat from the Ministry of External Affairs, joint secretary Naveen Srivastava, making it the first simultaneous military-diplomatic meeting between the two sides.
This was the first time the Indian and Chinese Corps Commanders have met since their 10-hour deliberation at Moldo on August 2. Since then, troops have clashed at least twice and have even accused each other of firing warning shots in the air, breaking a long-standing agreement to not use firearms within 2km of the LAC. Soldiers last month clashed in Chushul, close to the site of Monday’s meeting.
According to Sameer Patil, an international security studies fellow at Mumbai-based think tank Gateway House, India is looking to send a signal to China by way of the military-diplomatic engagement.
“It gives out a message to the Chinese that India is still committed to finding a diplomatic resolution to the dispute,” he said. “India wants to ensure that it is not seen giving up on diplomacy, in favour of solely military-level talks.”
The talks started at 9am Indian time and have continued for at least eight hours.
‘FIRST IN, FIRST OUT’
Tens of thousands of soldiers from both sides have been locked in a tense stand-off that began in May at various points in Ladakh, along the LAC. The stand-off resulted in a deadly clash at the Galwan Valley on June 15, when soldiers engaged in brutal hand-to-hand combat that resulted in at least 20 Indian casualties and an unspecified number on the Chinese side.
Soldiers have also faced off at the Hot Springs and Gogra patrolling points, the northern banks of the Pangong Tso lake, as well as the heights along the LAC in the Chushul-Moldo region.
There have been at least 17 rounds of meetings across diplomatic and military levels since June, including talks between the defence and foreign ministers from India and China on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Moscow earlier this month.
Retired lieutenant general Vinod Bhatia, the Indian army’s former director general of military operations, said the meeting was critical to the consensus reached by foreign ministers Wang Yi of China and S. Jaishankar of India in their Moscow meeting.
“Military officials from both sides will have to come and work out how this political consensus translates into ground-level action,” Bhatia said. “So, these meetings are intended to thrash out actual modalities and details of the disengagement, like where to disengage, when and by how much.”
According to Indian officials, their delegation is likely to emphasise the government’s stance of “status quo ante” – meaning that Chinese troops must go back to their positions as of April, before the stand-off began.
They added that the Indian side was expected to maintain its attitude that China must take the first steps towards disengagement, as part of New Delhi’s “first in, first out” policy. Insiders said the policy referred to India’s insistence that since China “initiated” the stand-off, it must also initiate the disengagement.
This stance was firmed up in last week’s meeting of the high-powered China Study Group, headed by Indian defence minister Rajnath Singh and including senior military officials such as all three service chiefs and national security adviser Ajit Doval. While there was no official statement after the meeting, the group is said to have carried out a “comprehensive review” of the situation along the LAC.
Patil of Gateway House said the outcome of the talks would depend on the position taken by People’s Liberation Army (PLA) commanders. “India has already told China that they have to first disengage in territories they have occupied. If they don’t do that, the frustration will grow.”
According to diplomatic sources, the Moldo summit is likely to be followed by the meeting of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs, which is intended to ensure smoother communication between the two countries regarding their seven-decade border dispute.
Experts said the reason another meeting was set to follow so quickly was the tricky logistics of winter engagements in already hostile terrain dominated by high ridges, steep drops, rocky mountains and frozen lakes.
Both India and China have had to ensure troops in forward posts and at base camps are well supplied to face the harsh weather, with high-calorie diets and special equipment including heaters, stoves and insulated tents. Indian media reports said the authorities were racing to provide fuel, oil and lubricants to their soldiers, an essential combination of materials for military operations in high-altitude zones.
The Indian authorities are also mindful of the limited road connectivity to many of the forward areas in Ladakh given heavy snowfall in the area. The new 9km Atal Rohtang Tunnel, set to be inaugurated early next month by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is set to cut down travel time between Leh and Manali, a town south of Ladakh.
Both sides have tried to emphasise their logistical capabilities as the border dispute simmers amid falling temperatures.
Major General Arvind Kapoor, the chief of staff of Ladakh’s 14 Corps, last week said the Indian army had “mastered” operational logistics given their experience in combat and non-combat situations in the high-altitude Jammu & Kashmir region.
Meanwhile, Chinese state-run nationalist tabloid Global Times on Sunday reported that PLA soldiers along the LAC had been given “hi-tech” outfits to battle the conditions, which included cold-proof hoods and warm training suits using the “latest domestically developed” technology.