Experts raise concern over Ladakh face-off
The tense confrontation between Indian and Chinese forces along the disputed border in eastern Ladakh and the accompanying military build-up is vastly different from previous standoffs that plunged bilateral relations to new lows, people familiar with the ongoing scrap said on Saturday.
The latest standoff along the line of actual control (LAC) is not confined to a small area, has triggered a worrying increase in troop numbers on both sides at multiple locations, has seen higher levels of aggression (especially by the Chinese), and seems to suggest a greater design rather than adventurism by a local commander, army officials and China watchers say.
While the army has refused to reveal specifics of the standoff, Indian and Chinese soldiers are said to beeyeball-to-eyeball at four different locations in the sensitive sector and the total number of soldiers on both sides at these flashpoints is estimated to be around 3,000.
Army chief General Manoj Mukund Naravane made a low-key visit to Ladakh on Friday for a security review as tensions grew between India and China near Pangong Tso and three pockets in the Galwan Valley region where Chinese troops have pitched close to 100 tents and erected temporary structures to establish a presence.
The possibility of Chinese soldiers constructing bunkers in some disputed areas cannot be ruled out, officials said. Reports have suggested that the Chinese side has deployed troops, vehicles and heavy equipment, involved in a military exercise in the area, to the Ladakh sector .
China’s state-run media has described the latest tensions as the worst since the 2017 Doklam standoff, which lasted 73 days.
Soldiers on both sides are showing restraint and local commanders are meeting almost daily to de-escalate, said a senior army official on the condition of anonymity. He said the spread of the standoff to multiple locations on the LAC was a cause of concern and every development in the area was being monitored closely.
“What we are witnessing in eastern Ladakh is different from what we saw in Depsang (2013), Chumar (2014) and even Doklam (2017). The previous episodes were localised. This one is not. Also, it appears to have been planned at a higher level,” said Lieutenant General DS Hooda (retd), who was the Northern Army commander when Indian and Chinese soldiers were caught in a tense standoff in Ladakh’s Chumar sector in September 2014.
The Chumar standoff began after Indian forces found that Chinese troops had deployed heavy machinery to construct a temporary road inside Indian territory. Also, Indian soldiers were eyeball-to-eyeball with Chinese troops in Ladakh’s Depsang area for three weeks in April-May 2013 after Chinese troops set up tents and took up positions 19 km into Indian side of line of actual control (LAC).
“It is difficult to gauge the next move of the Chinese. If the statements made by the foreign ministries of the two countries are any indicator, it seems the current confrontation could carry on for a while,” said a China expert.
Hooda doubted that the standoff could be resolved at the local level. “It will require political direction and diplomatic intervention,” he said.
India on Thursday rejected China’s allegation that Indian troops initiated tensions and crossed the LAC in the Ladakh and Sikkim sectors and accused the Chinese army of hindering patrols on the Indian side.
China’s foreign ministry first accused Indian troops of trespassing across the LAC in a statement last week, saying Beijing had to take “necessary countermeasures” after the Indian Army allegedly obstructed normal patrols by Chinese troops.
A government spokesperson on Thursday said, “Any suggestion that Indian troops had undertaken activity across the LAC in the western [Ladakh] sector or the Sikkim sector is not accurate.”
HT was the first to report on May 10 about tensions flaring up between India and China in north Sikkim where 150 soldiers were involved in a tense standoff a day earlier. Four Indian and seven Chinese soldiers were injured at Naku La during the confrontation.
Scores of soldiers from the two countries clashed near Pangong Tso on the night of May 5-6 and several of them were injured in the scuffle that involved around 250 men. While a flare-up was avoided as both armies stuck to protocols to resolve the situation, tensions quickly spread to other parts of eastern Ladakh, including the Galwan Valley area, with both sides establishing their land claims aggressively.