GUWAHATI, INDIA (BLOOMBERG) - Chinese and Indian military commanders are deadlocked over the best way to pull back troops from a strategic area in the Himalayas, people familiar with the discussions said, raising the prospect for another tense winter along the border.
China insisted last week that India pull back thousands of reserve troops and weaponry it brought to the border last year, including in the high-altitude Depsang Plains, amid the worst violence between the nations in decades, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the discussions were private.
India rejected the request during the 13th round of talks to resolve the border standoff, and saw the demand as a setback after the two sides made steady progress in disengagement, the people said.
The Depsang Plains is split by the Line of Actual Control - a disputed but de facto boundary between India and China that runs along the Himalayas - and had previously been patrolled by both Indian and Chinese troops. China last year positioned troops at key location in the plains, denying India access to 300 square kilometres of land ever since, the people said.
India wants to move soldiers away from all key disputed areas along its border with China, but not all the way back to their original bases, the people said. That's because it's difficult for India to put them back in place in the event of a conflict, as each solider must go through a three-stage acclimatisation that lasts about a month. Chinese soldiers, by contrast, can retreat to high-altitude locations on the expansive Tibetan Plateau, the people said.
The Indian army and the Defence Ministry didn't respond to requests for comment on the details of the border talks. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian referred to a statement last week from Colonel Long Shaohua, a spokesman for the Western theatre of the People's Liberation Army.
The Chinese side "made great efforts" to calm tensions during talks between military officials at the Chushul-Moldo border meeting point in the Ladakh region, Mr Long said in the statement. "But India still stuck to unreasonable and unrealistic demands, which added difficulties to the negotiation," he said.
Beijing expressed concern with Indian Vice-President M. Venkaiah Naidu's visit to Arunachal Pradesh bordering Tibet on the same day as the 13th round of border talks, a move the China Daily called "provocative".
"Given the current low level of mutual trust between the two sides, Beijing has a good reason to demand New Delhi stop taking any actions that may complicate the border issue and undermine bilateral ties," the editorial said. Before the latest round of talks, China agreed to disengage from other friction points along the 3,487km border except for the Depsang Plains, officials said.
The 972-square kilometre area holds key roads leading to the Karakoram Pass, which provides access from China's Xinjiang province to areas of Pakistan.
The Indian deployment also poses a threat to a Chinese highway along the border that connects Tibet and Xinjiang, according to Ms Yun Sun, a senior fellow and director of the China Programme at the Washington-based Stimson Centre.
"Winter has come so normally this is not a time for the dispute to flare up," she said. "But I don't see the dispute being resolved either through negotiation or through force in the near future."
While Indian and Chinese soldiers over the years frequently came face-to-face in the Depsang Plains, the past few years have seen an increase in aggressive tactics at different points along the border.
The tensions culminated in a clash in the Galwan Valley in June 2020 that left 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese soldiers dead. In response, India shifted at least 50,000 additional troops to its border with China in a historic move toward an offensive military posture.
Roughly 20,000 troops have been placed in areas along Depsang Plains and other friction points in the north, while another 20,000 are in the east in Arunachal Pradesh and the rest are positioned near Bhutan, which is also locked in a boundary dispute with China.
India and China have made some progress in de-escalating tensions this year, agreeing to pull back from some other friction points. After the 12th round of talks in August, New Delhi and Beijing issued an unusual joint statement describing the discussions as constructive. Indian officials at the time said a demilitarised zone would be created after the withdrawal of troops and artillery, and the area wouldn't be patrolled by either side to stop rival soldiers from encountering each other.
At the same time, China has ramped up military exercises in the Tibet Military Region by about 70 per cent to 53 in the year to June 2021, according to data compiled by the New Delhi-based Centre for China Analysis and Strategy.
That suggests the PLA is "readying to activate other sectors along the Line of Actual Control," said Mr Jayadeva Ranade, a former head of the China desk at India's cabinet secretariat and who now leads the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy. "I don't think China has any intention of pulling back."