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SOURCE: INDIA TODAY

As the tense military standoff between India and China in Ladakh entered its sixth month, the situation on the ground showed no signs of de-escalation. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) hasn’t budged from the Finger 4 area of Pangong lake, 8 km into Indian territory based on India’s perception of the LAC (Line of Actual Control), and in the Hot Springs area. The Indian Army is heavily deployed along the LAC and atop the Kailash Range, a row of hill features south of Pangong lake, which it occupied using special forces in successive waves beginning August 29.

Both sides issued a rare joint statement after the September 21 Corps Commander-level talks, where they agreed to ‘strengthen communication on the ground, avoid misunderstandings and misjudgements, stop sending more troops to the LAC, refrain from unilaterally changing the situation on the ground and avoid taking actions that may complicate the situation’. This is the sixth round of talks between generals from the two armed forces.

As if in a parallel universe, and filling the time until a yet-to-be-decided seventh round of talks, the two nations nonetheless continue to strike belligerent postures. China peppered its state-owned media with footage of the PLA’s Tibet military command conducting live-fire drills, on September 24, of tanks and artillery and missiles. As a Chinese military spokesperson said, this was to ‘test its adaptability and firepower of troops in ultra-high altitudes (over 18,000 ft)’, leaving no doubt where the ‘ultra-high altitudes’ were.

The message was duly received, with the Indian Army revealing just a few days later to the media its newly inducted T-90 tanks and BMP-2 infantry combat vehicles, deployed at areas over 15,000 ft above sea level. While it was known that tanks had been inducted in Ladakh, the world’s highest deployment of the armoured beasts, these were the first visuals to have come out so close to the theatre of operations.

On September 29, China hit back with one of its harshest statements since the standoff began. “China does not recognise the so-called Union territory of Ladakh, illegally established by India, and opposes infrastructure construction in disputed border areas for military control purposes,” said Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin in Beijing, in response to a question on India’s heightened construction activity. On this count, in early October, defence minister Rajnath Singh will inaugurate 43 bridges in the border areas of Ladakh, Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir, including seven in Ladakh built by the BRO all along the LAC with China. And on October 3, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is set to inaugurate the 8.8 km Atal tunnel in Rohtang, which will provide all-weather connectivity to a section of the vital route linking Manali to Leh.

With the stalemate sliding into winter and both sides digging in, Indian Army officials say they are watchful for Chinese attempts to alter the status quo in Ladakh and conduct possible diversionary military actions. China, like India, is in a heightened state of military readiness. It has been conducting live-fire exercises not just in Ladakh but also on its maritime frontier. On September 28, it conducted a near-unprecedented series of simultaneous military exercises, two in the South China Sea and one each in the East China Sea and in the Bohai Sea. These exercises, Indian analysts say, have been sparked off by fears within China of a possible military strike by the United States, which could help US President Donald Trump fighting a tough re-election campaign.

Indian analysts say they are also looking at a significant event within China that could perhaps define the trajectory of the standoff in Ladakh. The fifth plenary session of the 19th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) begins in Beijing next month. This crucial meeting, which will decide the course of China’s economy over the next five years, will be presided over by President Xi Jinping. There is much more at stake in the standoff for all players than meets the eye.