As a tense standstill lingers between Indian and Chinese armies along the Line of Actual Control (LoAC) in Ladakh, the possibility of a misunderstanding or accident triggering a larger conflict remains a concern despite an uneasy calm that seems to have descended on the area.
There has been no provocative action since the 10 September meeting between foreign ministers S Jaishankar and Wang Yi resulted in a consensus over refraining from sending more frontline troops to the LoAC and not escalating. This implies that 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 Tso, sources say.
As things stand, the next meeting of military commanders will happen after events related to China’s National Day, celebrated on 1 October, are over. In the meantime, members of the Indian defence establishment believe China has deliberately brought up the 1959 claim line, though fully aware that India has never accepted it, to appear tough. This flies in the face of China’s pledge to disengage and de-escalate.
The Indian side has taken note of the upping of the ante. They see it as a challenge and a confirmation of their assessment that Chinese actions on the ground generate no trust. This was a point put across plainly by Jaishankar and defence minister Rajnath Singh to their respective counterparts. They are trying to make sense of China’s foreign ministry to ascertain whether the PLA is “on or off-board” with the leadership or the talks are part of a ‘smoke and mirrors’ game. The ground situation along the LoAC remains very tense.
Hundreds of troops at close proximity create an unpredictable and volatile situation, said sources. Nerves and suspicion can result in unintended consequences, they say. There does not seem a 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 LoAC. Having altered the status quo in and around Pangong Tso to its advantage, India is not hurrying to provide China face-saver even if it does not want a costly conflict.