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International relations

India and China dig in for harsh winter on disputed border

Both armies set up camps and logistical chains in isolated Himalayas

Indian soldiers stand in formation after disembarking from a military transport plane at a forward air base in Leh, in the Ladakh region, on Sept. 15.   © Reuters

TOKYO/BEIJING/NEW YORK -- Underground bunkers with kerosene-fed lamps to fight off subzero temperatures. High-tech, armored snow gear designed to protect from harsh weather as well as incoming fire. Helipads built to evacuate the many soldiers who suffer from high-altitude sickness at 16,000 feet.

Even the insides of T-72 and T-90 tanks offer a warm respite from the chafing, bitter Himalayan cold.

That is what life has become on the isolated, alpine Line of Actual Control -- the border in the disputed Ladakh region between China and India -- amid a tense standoff between the world's two largest armies.

As both sides install wintering facilities for a combined 100,000 infantry, armored and artillery troops, it has become clear that no resolution to the eight-month impasse is likely any time soon.

India and China fought a brief but furious war in 1962 in this mountainous region that resulted in China occupying parts of what India said was its territory, demarcated by a British colonial-era border. In the years since, small border skirmishes have erupted between the Indian Army and the People's Liberation Army, followed by negotiations and eventual normalization.

But last May saw the bloodiest clash in six decades between the two sides, one that resulted in 20 Indian military deaths.

At least three Indian divisions and two Chinese divisions have been deployed in the area since, despite ongoing negotiations. For the first time in the region, even tanks have been mobilized, a rarity in high-altitude military operations.

"We are firmed in. As is the other side. At this juncture, it would be difficult for us to withdraw," said retired Lt. Gen. Rakesh Sharma, the former commander of the XIV Corps of the Indian Army, the group now entrenched in the conflict with China.

"The reasons are as topographic as they are political," Sharma said. "Our main passes, Zojila and Rohtang, are closed. We cannot do force deinduction by land. Withdrawal by air would be too exorbitant an exercise. India will maintain these numbers till the summer when the snows melt."

Military tankers carry fuel toward areas in the Ladakh region in September.   © Reuters

"The problem is that we don’t know when this situation will be resolved. They have prepared for the long haul," said Srikanth Kondapalli, professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

"This means that both sides are not in a hurry to resolve this conflict," he said.

The talks have ranged from the flag officer level, conducted in canvas tents on the disputed border, to ministerial level meetings hosted in Moscow, a friend to both Beijing and New Delhi.

Senior Chinese and Indian military commanders held their eighth round of talks in early November, but the meeting produced no breakthrough. No further meeting has been scheduled.

The region reaches heights over 4,000 meters above sea level, and temperatures plunge as low as minus 40 degrees. India's military is setting up "smart camps," according to Indian media. The facilities reportedly are equipped with heaters and electricity so that the front-line soldiers can endure the cold.

Because the mountain snow reduces visibility, India is considering using drones for remote monitoring.

Ren Guoqiang, spokesperson for the Chinese Defense Ministry, signaled at a late November news conference that China is preparing to tough out the winter along with India.

"At present, the situation in the China-India border areas has remained stable on the whole," Ren said.

The Global Times, a mouthpiece for the Communist Party of China, printed a piece on Dec. 4 speculating that a few years of bilateral talks may be needed to resolve the border strife.

Sensing that the standoff likely will persist for the long term, Chinese leaders have moved to bring India's neighbors to Beijing's side.

Wei Fenghe, the Chinese state councilor and defense minister, visited Pakistan on Dec. 1. The People's Liberation Army is willing to "face risks and challenges together" with the Pakistani army "and safeguard regional peace and stability together," Wei told Pakistani President Arif Alvi and Prime Minister Imran Khan.

The timing of Wei's visit to Pakistan, which also shares tensions with India, had the obvious purpose of sending a message to New Delhi.

During the meeting, Khan said China and Pakistan should work closer to lift the "Iron Brothers" relationship to new heights, according to a report by Xinhua News Agency, China's state-run outlet. China picked Pakistan as a place to run clinical trials for coronavirus vaccine candidates.

Meanwhile, India is forming the Quad with the U.S., Japan and Australia, looking to collaborate on security in the Asia-Pacific region. In November, the four countries conducted joint naval exercises.

India has revised its longtime stance of granting equal diplomatic space to all countries, including China. New Delhi continues to exclude Chinese enterprises from the domestic market. The extended tensions between India and China are slowly reshaping the international order.

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