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India claims that China has started to deploy armed robotic vehicles to handle the altitude and terrain that has proven too difficult for its troops. India also hit out at China by saying that China is giving “invented” names to several places in a disputed Himalayan region on their border as Beijing looks to assert sovereignty over the territory. The renaming of residential areas, rivers, and mountains followed a similar move in 2017 involving six other locations in the same area. Whereas, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said: “Southern Tibet is in China’s Tibet Autonomous Region, and has historically been Chinese territory. The renaming came within the scope of China’s sovereignty. Tibet has alternated over the centuries between independence and control by China, which it peacefully liberated the rugged plateau in 1951”. Several stretches of the lengthy frontier are disputed, and relations have soured dramatically since 20 Indian soldiers died in a brawl in June 2020 on one section between Ladakh and Tibet. Since then, both sides have reinforced the region with thousands of extra soldiers and military hardware as multiple rounds of talks have failed to de-escalate tensions.
It fiercely defends and militarises the Tibetan border, and brushes aside any debate about Chinese historical ownership of the region. India meanwhile sees China’s new Land Borders Law, approved in October and set to come into force on Jan 1, as hardening of Beijing’s position. The law calls China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity sacred and inviolable and enables Beijing to take measures to safeguard the territorial integrity and land boundaries and guard against and combat any act that undermines territorial sovereignty and land boundaries. Indian army officials allege the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is becoming more aggressive with every passing day. Every month there are two to three face-offs in these areas. India started fencing some areas around Galway but the Chinese objected to it and resulted in India having to remove it. An additional 50,000 Indian troops, as well as artillery and fighter planes, including the Russian-made MiG-21, had been deployed. In a sign of the shift in Indian military priorities, some of the additional troops on the Chinese border, including Ladakh and the states of Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh, have come from the border with Pakistan, which for decades was India’s most turbulent frontier.
For more than 18 weeks now, thousands of Indian and Chinese forces have been locked in an unprecedented stand-off along their 3,488km (2,167 miles) undemarcated boundary known as the Line of Actual Control (LAC), which ranges from the Karakoram mountain range in the north to the trijunction with Myanmar in the east. This has happened frequently in the western sector, the site of the current stand-off, and where Chinese-controlled Aksai Chin and Indian-controlled Ladakh are located. In the absence of a common understanding of the LAC, the Indian and Chinese armies operate on a string of written and unwritten agreements. For instance, in 1993, the two countries signed the ‘Agreement on the maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the LAC in India-China border areas. The agreement laid down rules of engagement. These included keeping only low-level military presences along the border, not using force, and not carrying out military exercises in disputed areas. However, the June 15 clash showed these agreements no longer held.
But with political relations still sour and troops still eyeball-to-eyeball at the border, are the two sides really on the road to a resolution?
According to the Indian claim, China has now deployed unmanned ground vehicles (UGV) to the region of Tibet to strengthen its position. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) acquired the vehicles – known as the Sharp Claw and the Mule-200 – as early as 2014, The Chinese military has deployed around 120-300 Mules to Tibet until now, the majority of them stationed near the border. Operators can control the Claw wirelessly, but it can also move on its own. The Mule can serve as either an unmanned delivery truck or utilize weapons, such as mounted guns. The PLA has deployed around 88 Sharp Claws into Tibet, with 38 of them in the western part of the province close to where the Indian and Chinese armies maintain a standoff. The region in which the vehicles may have deployed is described as exceedingly arid, remote, and largely inhospitable. The area mainly serves as access for a few commerce routes to cross the desert. The PLA has also deployed the VP-22 Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle, which can help move troops through difficult terrain or serve as an ambulance.
The greatest test for both sides was surviving the hostile winter, where temperatures dropped to below 40 degrees. Despite the glacial temperatures, the soldiers have to stay in tents that can be moved quickly. Indeed, the Indian army cannot match the hightech Chinese infrastructure. The preparations seem to be happening for a war. The army base in Chushul has expanded multiple times. Now people are not allowed to go near the border and tourists are banned from visiting. Durbuk is another strategic military base in eastern Ladakh that has vastly expanded. Hundreds of new tents have been pitched in recent months to accommodate more and more arriving Indian soldiers, while new structures have been put up to shield tanks and bigger vehicles. The large convoys of army trucks and tanks heading towards the border. In some of the tensest areas, a buffer zone has been agreed upon between Indian and Chinese troops to prevent troops from coming to blows. But this does not reflect the reality on the ground and is dismissive of any talk of de-escalation. In the Pangong lake, India has not regained territory where the Chinese advanced.
India and China still have starkly different views on the border situation. As made clear when Jaishankar and Wang met at the sidelines of a gathering of foreign ministers in Tajikistan, Jaishankar said it was only with China’s de-escalation and disengagement from the border that formerly cordial bilateral ties could be resumed. Wang, however, said that the responsibility does not lie with China to resolve the issue, and appeared to call on India to accept the current status quo in the interest of good relations. It is clear that India and China are now locked in an uneasy military stalemate, and the entire frontier has become a hot border. The only way to break the stalemate is if the Chinese or Indian decide to start a war.
Both countries have claims on the northern banks, where the finger-like ridges of the mountain range are the site of massive deployments by both sides. According to reports, since the stand-off, China had been occupying more than 1,000 square kilometers of territory claimed by India. Politically, both countries are in unenviable positions. China is mired in a string of low-level political conflicts and a high-decibel trade war with the United States. From its tensions with Australia to the bust-up in the South China Sea to the rising specter of a confrontation with Taiwan, China is unlikely to want to open up a bigger front with India at this point. India, on the other hand, is bogged down fighting a pandemic that shows few signs of easing. Its economy is flailing – its GDP contracted by nearly 24 percent and unemployment is rising. But with political relations still sour and troops still eyeball-to-eyeball at the border, are the two sides really on the road to a resolution?