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China-India top military chiefs meet for first time in 50 days

A Chinese soldier (L) and an Indian soldier (R) stand guard at the Chinese side of the ancient Nathu La border crossing between India and China. Photo: AFP/Diptendu Dutta. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

BEIJING, Sep 21, 2020, SCMP. The top commanders of the Chinese and Indian armies met on Monday at Moldo, on the Chinese side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) – the disputed border that separates the two countries – in their first high-level military talks in 50 days, South CHina Morning Post reported.

The meeting came 10 days after talks between the countries’ foreign ministers in Moscow, where they reached a five-point consensus to “quickly disengage [troops] and ease tensions” along the LAC. Experts said Monday’s talks carried immense significance for the fate of the border stand-off that has seen New Delhi and Beijing at loggerheads for the past five months.

There is also a ticking clock: by the end of the month, winter is coming to the high-altitude Himalayan mountain region of Ladakh, with temperatures set to plummet as low as minus 60 degrees Celsius in areas where soldiers have repeatedly faced off. A failure to resolve the stand-off by then will mean a need for both sides to post thousands of troops at forward positions in increasingly harsh weather.

The Indian delegation for Monday’s meeting was headed by Lieutenant General Harinder Singh of the 14 Corps, which is based in Leh, the largest town in Ladakh. It also included a diplomat from the Ministry of External Affairs,joint secretary Naveen Srivastava, making it the first simultaneous military-diplomatic meeting between the two sides.

This was the first time the Indian and Chinese Corps Commanders have met since their 10-hour deliberation at Moldo on August 2. Since then, troops have clashed at least twice and have even accused each other of firing warning shots in the air, breaking a long-standing agreement to not use firearms within 2km of the LAC. Soldiers last month clashed in Chushul, close to the site of Monday’s meeting.

According to Sameer Patil, an international security studies fellow at Mumbai-based think tank Gateway House, India is looking to send a signal to China by way of the military-diplomatic engagement.
“It gives out a message to the Chinese that India is still committed to finding a diplomatic resolution to the dispute,” he said. “India wants to ensure that it is not seen giving up on diplomacy, in favour of solely military-level talks.”

The talks started at 9am Indian time and have continued for at least eight hours.

LOGISTICAL ISSUES

Tens of thousands of soldiers from both sides have been locked in a tense stand-off that began in May at various points in Ladakh, along the LAC. The stand-off resulted in a deadly clash at the Galwan Valley on June 15, when soldiers engaged in brutal hand-to-hand combat that resulted in at least 20 Indian casualties and an unspecified number on the Chinese side.

Soldiers have also faced off at the Hot Springs and Gogra patrolling points, the northern banks of the Pangong Tso lake, as well as the heights along the LAC in the Chushul-Moldo region.

There have been at least 17 rounds of meetings across diplomatic and military levels since June, including talks between the defence and foreign ministers from India and China on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Moscow earlier this month.

“I think [Monday’s meeting] will give us a sense of the commitment that the Chinese side has towards the process and the intent they carry,” said a senior Indian defence official, who asked not to be named due to the sensitive nature of the discussions.

According to diplomatic sources, the Moldo talks are likely to be followed by the meeting of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs, which is intended to ensure smoother communication between the two countries regarding their seven-decade border dispute.

Experts said the reason another meeting was set to follow so quickly was the tricky logistics of winter engagements in already hostile terrain dominated by high ridges, steep drops, rocky mountains and frozen lakes.

Both India and China have had to ensure troops in forward posts and at base camps are well supplied to face the harsh weather, with high-calorie diets and special equipment including heaters, stoves and insulated tents. Indian media reports said the authorities were racing to provide fuel, oil and lubricants to their soldiers, an essential combination of materials for military operations in high-altitude zones.

The Indian authorities are also mindful of the limited road connectivity to many of the forward areas in Ladakh given heavy snowfall in the area. The new 9km Atal Rohtang Tunnel, set to be inaugurated early next month by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is set to cut down travel time between Leh and Manali, a town south of Ladakh.

Both sides have tried to emphasise their logistical capabilities as the border dispute simmers amid falling temperatures.

Major General Arvind Kapoor, the chief of staff of Ladakh’s 14 Corps, last week said the Indian army had “mastered” operational logistics given their experience in combat and non-combat situations in the high-altitude Jammu & Kashmir region.

Meanwhile, Chinese state-run nationalist tabloid Global Times on Sunday reported that People’s Liberation Army soldiers along the LAC had been given “hi-tech” outfits to battle the conditions, which included cold-proof hoods and warm training suits using the “latest domestically developed” technology.

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