Even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in New Delhi on Thursday, over a thousand troops from the two countries remained locked in a face-off along the Pare-Chu stream in Ladakh’s Chumar region.
Army sources described the face-off as the largest build-up of troops on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) since the crisis at Daulat Beg Oldi last year, but added that violence was unlikely.
“There has been no real tension between the troops, bar some pushing and shoving that broke out on Wednesday,” a senior military official said. “And we do not anticipate that this is going to escalate.”
“However,” the officer said, “the sheer numbers of troops committed by China is a cause for concern.”
While the Defence Ministry declined to comment officially, sources said the strength of troops on the Chinese side was upped to “about 1,000” by Wednesday evening. The number of troops on the Indian side is about 1,500, they said.
Modi referred to the tensions during his joint press conference with Xi, saying he had “expressed concern over the incidents that have taken place on the border”.
The studied language used by the PM contrasted with his election-time rhetoric, where he had frequently attacked the UPA government for failing to give a muscular response to Chinese military actions along the LAC.
Indian commanders from the Leh-based XIV Corps, and a Chinese military delegation led by Colonel Chen Zheng Shan, met on Wednesday in the latest in a series of efforts to defuse the crisis. The meeting, which followed a similar one held on Monday, ended without result.
Sources said there were no plans for another flag meeting at the moment.
Indian military sources said upwards of 500 Chinese troops had moved into a disputed stretch of the LAC near the village of Chumar — the last habitation in the Ladakh region before the Himachal Pradesh border — on Wednesday morning.
India and China differ on where the LAC runs in several areas. [See map] The Prime Minister called for “clarification work” to begin to resolve this divergence of interpretations, so that “peace and tranquillity” could be maintained along the LAC.
“For years now, troops on both sides have patrolled the disputed area, but this was the first incident where there’s been a build-up of this scale,” a military official in Leh said.
The Chinese mobilisation followed months of tension, which began after Chinese forces began to upgrade a road running up to the LAC in Chumar, on to what India claims to be its territory.
India objected to the construction, saying it violated an agreement between the two sides not to enhance military infrastructure in disputed areas.
In turn, China demanded that India dismantle an irrigation channel built near the Charding Nilu stream, a similarly disputed pocket in Demchok, several kilometres away.
The 2,000 sq km Chumar sector is one of the few stretches of the LAC that present a challenge for the Chinese military. The base of the area is cut off by the 5,900-metre Drongmar ridge, over which a dirt road gives China limited motorised access to the LAC in summer. The Indian Army, on the other hand, enjoys all-weather access to the LAC from Chumar.
Last year, tensions along the LAC flared to their worst level in years, after a platoon of PLA troops pitched tents in the Raki Nula, 30 km off Daulat Beg Oldi. India and China had both patrolled the area, but this was the first effort to establish a permanent presence. The crisis was defused after three weeks of negotiation.
Earlier, China had complained that India had upgraded border outposts in the Chumar sector, and India had protested Chinese road-making activity.
India has ramped up defences in Ladakh since the 2013 face-off, moving an armoured regiment with 46 tanks to join the Kiari-based 70 Brigade. The XIV Corps is also due to be augmented by an armoured brigade, made up of three regiments, which will provide tank cover from the northern tip of the LAC at the Karokaram pass to its south-eastern extreme at Chumar.
The PLA’s Chengdu Military Area Command and Lanzhou Military Area Command — facing the northern ranges and the north-east respectively — too have carried out exercises preparing for rapid thrusts across the mountains.