Indian and Chinese troops settle in for winter of discontent along disputed border

Tensions along the India-China border spiked in June after soldiers on both sides were killed in a violent clash in Ladakh. PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI - As India and China continue with military and diplomatic talks on their disputed border, troops positioned in the Ladakh region now have to additionally grapple with deteriorating weather conditions as winter sets in.

At Pangong Tso, a Himalayan lake, where Chinese and India troops are in a stand-off, temperatures drop to sub zero.

Temperature during the winter, starting next month till February, will plummet to minus 40 degrees Celsius and the lake, which cuts through Chinese and Indian territories, will freeze over.

The area is known as the "cold desert", said retired Army colonel S Dinny, who served as commanding officer at Pangong Tso between 2015 and 2017.

"The temperature goes down to sub-zero. The oxygen level is at 60 per cent. Fatigue increases manifold. You get chilblains if a body part is exposed for even a short duration," said Col Dinny.

"There is definitely a decrease in activities in winter whether infrastructure development like building roads or patrols. It is quite challenging. It will test the limit of logistic backup, sustenance and survivability of people and equipment. It won't be easy. But there is a job to be done, we will do it."

Videos released on Sunday (Sept 27) showed Indian Army tanks and armoured personnel carriers in forward locations in eastern Ladakh. The tanks can reportedly operate at temperatures as low as minus 40 deg C.

"Even in the best of conditions, it is difficult to function (at Pangong Tso). When you add temperature and wind conditions created by the onset of winter. It becomes really difficult to survive and for troops to spend the whole winter is a challenge by any standards," said journalist and former Indian Army officer Ajai Shukla.

While India has experience in high altitude warfare, it is known to come at a high cost. At Siachen Glacier, the highest battlefield between India and Pakistan where the winter temperatures can drop to minus 70 deg C, the adverse conditions have killed hundreds of soldiers, mostly from hypothermia, avalanches and frostbite than actual fighting.

"I think physically from the point of view of experience, Indian soldiers are better geared for the prospect of spending winter out there. The key is to put in place the infrastructure required to do so like snow shelters and logistic chain that is more difficult from the Indian side. The Chinese have better roads and better access. So it evens out," said journalist and former Indian Army officer Ajai Shukla.

He noted that India had upgraded infrastructure exponentially since the standoff started nearly five months ago.

Tensions along the India-China border, which has largely remained peaceful, spiked in June after soldiers on both sides were killed in a violent clash in the Galwan Valley in Ladakh.

Since then, the border has remained tense with the armies facing off along different sections of the border or Line of Actual Control, which is poorly demarcated.

Last month, Indian troops stopped their Chinese counterparts from occupying vantage positions on the southern bank of the lake, after they were prevented by Chinese troops from patrolling areas on the northern bank that were earlier accessible.

A potential trigger for the border tensions is said to stem from India's moves to boost infrastructure along the border and last year's decision to carve out the union territory of Ladakh from Jammu and Kashmir last year.

Analysts said that there was no question of either side giving up vantage points in spite of the adverse weather conditions.

"Soldiers will remain unless there is a breakthrough in the talks and do we have the capacity (to keep troops). We (Indian soldiers) have been operating in these conditions for many many years," said Lieutenant General (retired) D.S. Hooda, who served as the Indian military's Northern Commander, said,

Military and diplomatic talks are continuing.

The foreign ministers of the two countries held talks early this month and agreed to a five- point agenda that included abiding by border agreements. But implementing it is seen to be a challenge, with both sides having different perceptions of the Line of Actual Control or the defacto border.

Military officials and diplomats in a follow-up meeting last week agreed to stop sending more troops to the frontline and strengthen communication on the ground.

On Tuesday, India accused China of trying to change the goal post after a Hindustan Times report said China stood behind the LAC as detailed by Premier Zhou Enlai to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in Nov 7, 1959. India has never accepted that definition.

"We therefore expect that the Chinese side will sincerely and faithfully abide by all agreements and understandings in their entirety and refrain from advancing an untenable unilateral interpretation of the LAC," said Ministry of External Affairs Spokesperson Anurag Srivastava.

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