Uncertainty threatened high-level bilateral visits as Indian troops stayed locked eyeball-to-eyeball with 22 intruding Chinese soldiers in Ladakh on Tuesday and a flag meeting between the two sides flopped.
Senior officials on both sides swung into action to try and rescue visits by defence minister AK Antony to Beijing and Chinese premier Li Keqiang to India next month but sources warned that their job was getting tougher as the Chinese intrusion looked set to enter its ninth day.
Troops from the two sides are separated by just 300 metres in the cold desert battleground 17,000 feet above sea level.
“The visits have now gone back to the drawing board as the face-off has injected sourness into growing India-China ties,” said a senior official on the Indian side, adding it would be difficult for New Delhi to go ahead with the visits given the strength of public opinion against the Chinese.
The two sides had agreed to maintain high-level contacts for the rest of the year in late March, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Brics summit in South Africa. After Premier Li's visit, external affairs minister Salman Khurshid and finally the PM were to go to Beijing.
Top government sources told HT that there was high-level contact led by national security adviser Shivshankar Menon to try and take down the temperature, given the importance of bilateral ties between the two Asian giants. The two sides plan a third flag meeting before the end of the week after the second meeting, which lasted five hours on Tuesday, produced no result.
“There have been exchanges at the highest levels today to defuse the crisis as both sides know a hardening of positions would be detrimental,” said a government official.
Chinese troops are more than 15 km inside Indian territory, and external affairs ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said the “face-to-face situation between the border personnel was due to differences on the alignment along the Line of Actual Control”.
He said the Chinese side had been asked to return to the status quo on the western border that prevailed before the incident.
Tensions have ratcheted up since the Chinese incursion on April 15.
Three days after the event, foreign secretary Ranjan Mathai summoned the Chinese envoy to Delhi, Wei Wei, to express India's displeasure. This was after a first flag meeting between senior commanders on both sides failed, and the Chinese side at the talks delivered another provocation by quoting from a letter written in 1959 by then Chinese premier Zhou En Lai to Jawaharlal Nehru asserting his country's territorial claims.
Defence ministry officials said on Tuesday there had been a violation of Indian airspace by a Chinese helicopter on April 15. The Chinese side claimed that the Indian Army had started patrolling with heavy vehicles and also accused India of air violations.
(With inputs from Jayanth Jacob)