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India continues Military-to-Military talks as China indicates no troop pullback and has fortified defences in new locations occupied in 2020
|The Author is Former Director General of Information Systems and A Special Forces Veteran, Indian Army
The 20th round of India-China Corps Commander-level talks were held on October 9-10 at the Chushul Moldo border meeting point in eastern Ladakh. However, China has indicated long back it will not pull back any troops, India has been insisting on continuing military-to-military talks despite loss of control of thousands of sq km territory to China in 2020, including traditional grazing grounds forcing migration of locals. Indian patrols cannot access 26 of the 65 patrolling points and the PLA lodgment at Y-Junctionin Raki Nala area of Depsang is 20 km deep.
Post the 20th round of Corps Commander-level talks, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) issued a statement on October 11 saying, "The two sides exchanged views in a frank, open and constructive manner for an early and mutually acceptable resolution of the remaining issues... in accordance with the guidance provided by the national leadership …. building on the progress made in the last round of Corps Commanders' Meeting … They agreed to maintain the momentum of dialogue and negotiations through the relevant military and diplomatic mechanisms. They also committed to maintain peace and tranquility on the ground in the border areas in the interim."
The two sides exchanged views in a frank, open and constructive manner for an early and mutually acceptable resolution of the remaining issues
The diplomatic language in the statement is similar to that used earlier but there is no change in the Chinese stance. The same flowery language used as earlier without much substance, especially since China has been indicating that the PLA is sitting in its own territory and calling India as the aggressor – price we are paying for not having called out China's aggression in 2020. In fact, if we have not lost any territory, why the 20 rounds of military-to-military talks?
A day after the MEA statement, a media report quoted "unnamed" defence and security officials to say that during the 20th round of India-China Corps Commander-level talks, India and China have agreed to carry on with winter deployment along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Eastern Ladakh, which will see reduction in troops, and aim to work out a plan ahead of the summer so that there is no surge in soldiers and equipment then. The report further says one more roundof talks will be held during the winter to cater to the summer deployment plans, and the plan is to reach an understanding during the next round of talks to not bring back additional troops during summers. However, this appears to be wishful thinking.
India and China have agreed to carry on with winter deployment along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Eastern Ladakh
The PLA has fully fortified its defences in the new locations occupied in 2020, replete with fortified bunkers, command posts, observation towers looking into Indian defences, artillery, air, air defence and logistics support. Why would PLA pull back even from its deep intrusion in Depsang when we vacated the Kailash Range in our own territory in exchange of PLA withdrawal from one solitary post on north bank of Pangong Tso, to a location to the east although both locations continue to remain linked with a metal road?
Since the Chinese aggression in 2020, the PLA has completed two bridges on the Pangong Tso to facilitate China's offensive plans, helicopters and drones deployed forward, and Tibetan-origin recruits deployed along the LAC. The buffer zones created are all in our territory. China claims the whole of Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh anyway, so why will the PLA pull back troops? They simply will not, although there may be some reduction of tents in the area of Demchok during winter, as has been the case every year. But these reappear in summer. Aside from this, routine turnover and relief of troops will continue.
A recent Pentagon report mentions that the violent patrol clash at Galwan on June 15, 2020 resulted in the death of approximately 20 Indian soldiers and four PLA soldiers. The PLA has maintained continuous force presence and continuous infrastructure build up along the LAC. It says, in 2022, China continued to develop military infrastructure along the LAC. These improvements include underground storage facilities close to Doklam, new roads in all three sectors of the LAC, new villages in disputed areas in neighbouring Bhutan, a new second bridge over Pangong Lake, a dual-purpose airport near the center sector, and multiple helipads.
The Chatham House report states that the proposed Chinese G695 highway, intended to link Xinjiang with Tibet and due to be completed by 2035, will run the length of Aksai Chin
The Pentagon report further states that China deployed one border regiment, supported by two divisions of Xinjiang and Tibet Military Districts with four combined arms brigades (CAB) in reserve in the western sector of the LAC. China also deployed as many as three light-to-medium CABs in the eastern sector from other theater commands and an additional three CABs in the central sector of the LAC. Although some elements of a light CAB eventually withdrew, a majority of the deployed forces remained in place along the LAC.
Media reports of June 6, 2023 have quoted UK-based Chatham House to say that - China has ramped up infrastructure work at Aksai Chin and established an extensive ecosystem to support troop deployment; satellite images show that China has expanded roads, outposts and modern weatherproof camps equipped with parking areas, solar panels and helipads; China is also building a new heliport that comprises 18 hangars and short runways for use by helicopters and possibly drones which will significantly enhance the operational capabilities of the PLA in and around Aksai Chin; a number of PLA bases can now be seen leading up from the main standoff site; at Raki Nala, Chinese outposts are visible potentially blocking Indian patrols in the area.
The Chatham House report further states that the proposed Chinese G695 highway, intended to link Xinjiang with Tibet and due to be completed by 2035, will run the length of Aksai Chin through the Depsang Plains, south past Galwan Valley, and towards Pangong Tso; the Indian armed forces will now have to match a large-scale presence of China along the border with Aksai Chin, perhaps for years to come. This appears to be the harsh reality.