Frozen Stand-off

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SPEAKING at an interactive session at the FICCI’s annual general meeting on Saturday, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar acknowledged India was being tested in the seven-month-long border standoff with China in Ladakh. He, however, expressed confidence that India will meet the national security challenge. The foreign minister added that China’s action had impacted public sentiment in India and as such was not in the interest of the communist giant. “The goodwill which was so carefully developed will dissipate,” he said.

These remarks do not give much confidence as to the chances of improvement in the situation in near future. The two sides have so far held umpteen rounds of talks right from the level of their Army commanders to that of defence and foreign minister. But China has so far refused to go back to status quo ante. According to media reports, China has occupied over 1000 square kilometres of the territory claimed by India.

India’s position is that China is in “violation of the bilateral agreements and protocol on ensuring peace and tranquillity along the LAC in the India-China border areas”. The two sides, however, have continued to maintain communication through diplomatic and military channels to achieve the agreement. Meanwhile, the winter has set in and the temperature in Ladakh has plunged to sub zero. Latest satellite images from Sentinel have indicated that Pangong Tso has partially frozen and two more lakes have completely frozen. This is challenging for the two armies. But here India may have some advantage here over China. Indian Army has the long experience of manning Siachen glacier. But the large scale deployment along the Line of Actual Control through the winter will not only test the resilience of the two armies but also raise the costs disproportionately for the two nations.

India wants China to go back to position as it existed in April but Beijing is in no mood to do so. On the contrary, the People’s Liberation Army has enhanced its military profile on the border by deploying thousands of its soldiers and equipment. In recent years China has reportedly more than doubled its total number of air bases, air defence positions and heliports near the Indian border.

This has now become a high stakes war of nerves between the two countries. More so, for India that can hardly afford to be distracted at a time when the number of the Covid-19 positive cases is around one crore. Besides, the depleting economy hit hard by the badly implemented nationwide lockdown hardly affords the government any space for hostilities. China, on the other hand, has successfully tackled the pandemic, despite being the country of origin of the deadly contagion.

A pragmatic way out to resolve the lingering stand-off is through negotiations, even if it takes time. It will be in the interest of both the countries to reach an understanding that also holds on the ground. But this can only happen if Beijing also approaches the dialogue seriously.

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