With the world’s attention focused on Taiwan lately, Sunday’s talks between Indian and Chinese military commanders slipped beneath the radar of many newsreaders across the globe. The discussions were the latest in a series of corps and army-level talks aimed at defusing a standoff at the border which has gone on for over a year. Since the clashes between Indian and Chinese troops along their disputed border, both nations have claimed they desire a resolution to the standoff. Their actions, however, tell another story as the military presence on both sides of the border continues to increase.
Sunday’s talks failed to make progress and on the following day India and China pointed fingers at each other. The Indian Defense Ministry placed blame on “unilateral attempts by the Chinese side to alter the status quo.” Indian commanders put forward reasonable suggestions at the latest round of talks but China’s representatives were not in agreement and resisted them. A spokesman for the People’s Liberation Army placed responsibility for the lack of progress on India, claiming Indian demands are unreasonable and unrealistic.
Both nations have raised the number of troops stationed in the border region and are actively building up infrastructure intended to keep large forces stationed there during the dangerous winter seasons. Current Chinese troop levels are estimated at 50,000 near the border with tens of thousands more men, and their equipment, within a day’s travel. India has kept pace with the buildup, deploying tens of thousands of its own troops, and weaponry to the border.
India and China have begun moving forward-deployed troops and equipment away from some of the disputed areas of the border area. These are the areas where Chinese and Indian troops have been involved in a months-long standoff. The first movement of troops started on Wednesday near Pangong Lake in the Ladakh region. Both Beijing and New Delhi have spoke quite positively of the disengagement. India’s Defense Minister Rajnath Singh informed Parliament that the withdrawals will be completed in a “phased, coordinated and verified manner.”
The hope among some observers and experts is that this disengagement leads to a broader disengagement and eventual resolution of Sino-Indian border issues in the north. However, not everyone shares this viewpoint. In the eyes of an influential number of former Indian government officials and outside experts, this withdrawal indicates the current Indian government’s acceptance of Beijing’s position regarding the contested border territory. A handful of regional military commentators have also chimed in with their own theories, the most interesting being that the mutual withdrawal from Pangong is a smokescreen intended to mask the fact that China’s true military objective in East Ladakh is Depsang.
Regardless, the disputed Sino-Indian border has had a penchant for straining relations between the two countries in the past. In this most recent crisis the stakes have been higher given the COVID-19 pandemic, China’s ascendancy and India’s increasingly close relations with the United States. It remains to be seen if these mutual withdrawals will be permanent. These forward deployed forces are likely not being removed from the gameboard altogether. A redeployment to another area of the border, or reoccupying the former positions around Pangong would not take very long if ordered.