As troops in the Himalayas hunker down for the brutal winter, the outcome of the worst clashes in decades is becoming clear: China has pushed further into territory once patrolled exclusively by India.
A summer of fighting saw India lose control over about 300 square kilometers (115 square miles) of land along the disputed mountainous terrain, according to Indian officials familiar with the situation. Chinese soldiers now prevent Indian patrols in the area, which is about five times the size of Manhattan.
The last six months have effectively drawn new battle lines across a freezing high-altitude desert, raising tensions to their highest point since India and China fought a war in the area six decades ago. Both armies are now preparing to stand their ground in mostly uninhabited terrain during winter months in which temperatures can drop to 40 degrees below zero.
“We have not seen an expanded winter deployment since the 1962 war,” said Lieutenant General D. S. Hooda, a former Northern Army commander who was responsible for an area that stretches across the Himalayas to the highest pass between India and China at 18,176 feet (5,540 meters).
“Both countries are digging in,” he said. “It tells us that attitudes are hardening and thereby we could see an extended period of tensions that could have unintended consequences.”
The current “Line of Actual Control” separating the two countries partially adheres to boundaries drawn by the British in 1914 between Tibet and India. Skirmishes were reported after India granted the Dalai Lama asylum following an uprising against Chinese rule in Tibet in 1959, leading to the war shortly afterward. Five treaties since then have failed to stem periodic clashes.
At stake for both sides is control over strategic outposts like the Karakoram Pass, which runs from India into China’s Xinjiang region. A hold on the ancient Silk Road route could potentially give China easier road access to Pakistan, a long-time ally, opening up trade corridors into Central Asian countries that are key to the success of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative.
While India conducted little activity in the border area for years after the war, over the past decade it began building new infrastructure. India recently opened the first of seven tunnels in key parts of the Himalayas to facilitate troop movements, and also completed a 255-kilometer road connecting a major regional city to the Karakoram Pass. World War II-era landing strips and airfields across the full length of the India-China border were also refurbished.
China’s Foreign Ministry has called India’s infrastructure drive the “root cause of tensions.” China has tightly controlled any information about troop deployments and casualties, and its state-run media have been restrained in criticizing Indian leaders – allowing space to potentially negotiate a resolution.India “has been on a building spree under Modi’s watch, which is a red flag for China as it changes the status quo,” said Chen Jinying, a professor at the School of International Relations and Public Affairs at Shanghai International Studies University. “Both sides appear to be very determined and neither side is willing to show any signs of weakness or gesture to back down.”
The current conflict escalated more than a year ago, just weeks after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu-dominant government scrapped the constitutional guarantees of autonomy in Jammu and Kashmir – India’s only Muslim-majority state. In September 2019, Chinese and Indian soldiers clashed on the banks of the Pangong Tso, a glacial lake at about 14,000 feet.
By the time the harsh Himalayan winter abated in May of this year, India was surprised to find China’s army built forward bases, occupied mountaintops and sent thousands of soldiers to prevent Indian patrols. India realized it had lost control of about 250 square kilometers of land in the Depsang Plains, which holds key roads leading up to the Karakoram Pass, as well as 50 square kilometers of land in the Pangong Tso, Indian officials said.
Modi’s office deferred comment to the Foreign Ministry and Defense Ministry, neither of which responded to questions. India’s military didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. China’s Foreign Ministry said it couldn’t comment on information that “has no clear source and cannot be substantiated.”
In the second week of June both sides clashed, leaving 20 Indian and an unknown number of Chinese soldiers dead. As both sides rushed soldiers and reinforcements to the area, border agreements carefully worked out by previous governments fell by the wayside.
On the night of Aug. 29, India surprised China by moving thousands of soldiers onto strategic high ground along a stretch of more than 40 square kilometers on the south bank of Pangong Tso. This allowed them to get a better view of China’s troop movements, and escalating tensions further.
Then on Sept. 7 the two sides fired shots at each other for the first time in four decades, breaking another taboo. Since then, multiple rounds of high-level military and diplomatic talks have failed to defuse the border standoff.
While usually both sides draw down troops during the winter months, this year soldiers holding critical heights are in make-shift shelters – making them vulnerable to the cold. Sourcing water and keeping them warm will be an equally big challenge.
With rivers freezing, by mid-November travel within Ladakh will be easy but snow will block roads to the region. Air-lifts are the only means of transporting troops and supplies in and out. Although China has an infrastructure advantage along the border, the Indian Army hopes Beijing will thin out troops from the area, allowing it to do the same.
A few hundred kilometers southwest of the Karakoram Pass lies the Siachen Glacier – often described as the world’s highest battlefield – where Indian and Pakistan soldiers remain within rifle range of each other. A coordinated move by allies China and Pakistan would make India’s hold of this region tenuous.
Addressing the Bloomberg India Economic Forum 2020, Indian Foreign Minister Jaishankar described the the border standoff as serious and said talks were “a work in progress.”
“If the foundations of the relationship are disturbed,” he said, “you can’t be impervious to the fact that it will have consequences.”