A deadlock in the latest round of talks between India and China on their disputed border means that tens of thousands of Indian troops will hunker down for a second winter in subzero temperatures in the Himalayan mountains.
The challenge of manning two contentious frontiers with rivals Pakistan and China comes at a time when the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan also could pose a security risk for the South Asian country, according to analysts.
While a dozen rounds of negotiations between Indian and Chinese military commanders since a deadly clash in June last year in Ladakh had helped contain tensions and led to troops pulling back from some disputed areas, efforts to disengage from other hotspots stalled Sunday.
Each side blamed the other for the breakdown – India said the Chinese side was not agreeable to its “constructive suggestions,” while the Chinese side blamed India for making “unreasonable and unrealistic demands.”
“The indications are very clear, that the Chinese are not going to move back from their position of April 2020, which is what India has been insisting upon. They have put the onus on India by saying it is up to us to adopt a responsible position,” said Jayadeva Ranade, who heads the Center of China’s Analysis and Strategy. “It basically means that India now has no option to manning two hostile borders because this situation is here to stay.”
India has deployed an estimated 50,000 troops, backed by artillery and fighter jets in the Ladakh region since last year along the so-called Line of Actual Control. That’s more than double the number before hostilities erupted last year, according to security analysts.
Although Indian soldiers are adept at high altitude warfare and accustomed to operating in punishing mountain terrain, where temperatures dip to minus 30 degrees Celsius, India’s worries center on the massive infrastructure that China is building on its side.
“The Chinese are sharply raising their military capability in Tibet along the Indian border, upgrading airfields, constructing residential facilities, helipads, dumps for ammunition, and other military infrastructure,” said Manoj Joshi, distinguished fellow at New Delhi’s Observer Research Foundation. “So, that is a real challenge for the Indian army.”
The build-up by the Chinese side means “they are there to stay,” India’s Army Chief M. M. Naravane said on Saturday. “If they are there to stay, we are there to stay, too. The build-up on our side and developments on our side, I would say are as good as what the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] has done.”
While India is speeding up road projects to remote borders, building bridges and cutting tunnels through the mountains to facilitate troop movements, China has a head start, according to analysts.
In addition, India is poorly positioned to upgrade its military weapons following a contraction of its economy last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It has only now begun a fragile recovery.
“For India, the challenge will be to the financial burden of not just deploying tens of thousands of troops in the high mountains, but also the purchase of new weapons, equipment and platforms to match the threat that is now coming from both sides,” said Ranade. “I also look at the fact that Chinese military power can project into Pakistan, so we are talking of a combined strength along both borders because they will certainly assist the Chinese.”
The tensions with China are giving new impetus to India’s more-than-decade-long effort to reorganize its military that aims for closer integration between the army, navy and air force.
“Our military is manpower-intensive, which costs a lot of money because a lot of the budget goes into salaries and pensions. While that is necessary, given the contested borders, it also needs to be more equipment-intensive, like other modern powers,” said Joshi. “What India needs is new technology that gives us an edge over China, especially for the air force and the navy. But that costs money upfront.”
As it seeks to gain leverage against Beijing, New Delhi has moved toward close cooperation with the Quad – the grouping of India, the United States, Australia and Japan that held a summit in Washington last month. While the group does not directly mention China, countering its growing influence is its primary focus.
On Tuesday, the four countries began holding joint naval exercises in the Indian Ocean that, according to India’s navy spokesman, reflect their commitment to supporting a free, open, inclusive Indo-Pacific region.
“The Quad will help shape the security environment in the long run by offering alternatives in areas such as technology and vaccines to countries in the region, which were falling within the China orbit. But in the immediate run, India faces its own security challenge as the Chinese harden their position on the border,” said Harsh Pant, director, Studies and head of the Strategic Studies Program at the Observer Research Foundation.
India is the only country in the group that shares a bitterly disputed border with China, making its challenge of managing its tensions with Beijing far more complex.
“The Quad alliance will project political and diplomatic heft to counter China and that has great value,” said Joshi. “But where its land borders are concerned, India is on its own.”