Modi bluntly told visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping that Beijing’s intransigence on the border might impact bilateral ties.
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NEW DELHI: Prime Minister Narendra Modi bluntly told visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping that Beijing's intransigence on the border might impact bilateral ties.
"Yeh chhoti chhoti ghatnayen bade se bade sambandhon ko prabhavit kar deti hain. Agar daant ka dard ho to saara sharir kaam nahin karta hai. (Even such small incidents can impact the biggest of relationships just as a little toothache can paralyze the entire body)," Modi cautioned the Chinese leader on Thursday. The warning came after the Chinese did not pull back troops in Chumar sector of eastern Ladakh even 24 hours after Xi saying that the People's Liberation Army (PLA) had been asked to withdraw.
Sources said Xi had told Modi on Wednesday in Ahmedabad that the PLA troops who had advanced in the Chumar sector, triggering the standoff, had been asked to retreat to their original position. Xi made the claim after Modi took up the incursion issue with him.
Other members of the Chinese delegation also told their Indian counterparts on Thursday in New Delhi that the Chinese soldiers had been asked to go back, even as they pleaded ignorance about the provocation.
Of course, the Indian side, knowing that the PLA does not enjoy the autonomy that the Chinese visitors sought to bestow upon it in this instance, treated the alibi as a feint and was not taken in by it.
As the military face-off continued on Friday, it was clear that the visit of the Chinese president, which held the promise of improving ties, may have in fact aggravated the trust deficit because of the Ladakh incursions which, the government here is pretty sure, were timed to coincide with the engagement.
Even as hectic politico-diplomatic interventions are underway to defuse tensions after the Modi-Xi summit, defence sources said there was "no change in the ground situation" till Friday evening at Chumar, where around 1,000 soldiers from each side are holding five to six "tactical positions" spread along a 2.5-km front in sub-zero temperatures at an altitude of around 14,500feet.
"The PLA troops have weaker tactical positions which are difficult to sustain in the sector. They may withdraw after posturing for another day or two to save face. If they do, we will also thin out our troops in the sector to restore status quo ante. Till then, our soldiers will stand firm," said a source.
The stand-off had kicked off on September 10 after Indian soldiers had prevented PLA troops equipped with cranes, bulldozers and other equipment from building a road right up to Chepzi on the LAC in the Chumar sector.
Though the "present separation distance" between the rival troops ranges from just 200 to 800 metres at different points, there is "no threat" of matters spinning out of control along the unresolved 4,057-km Line of Actual Control (LAC), where not a single shot has been fired for decades despite regular incursions and faceoffs. Incidentally, a PLA lieutenant had inadvertently strayed into Indian positions during the ongoing Chumar faceoff. "He was detained and later handed over to the PLA," said a source.
But with three flag meetings between local military commanders failing to resolve the Chumar deadlock, both India and China had pumped in more soldiers into the sector a couple of days ago. The two sides have also used helicopters to airdrop food and supplies for their soldiers as well as for undertaking reconnaissance of the disputed area.
Similarly, there is no end to the stalemate in the "civilian confrontation" at Demchok, which took place after China moved some of its graziers to the Ninglung Nullah — where they have pitched their tents — to prevent Indian workers from building a water irrigation channel under the NREGA scheme there last week.
The PLA decision to rush more soldiers to the standoff site in Chumar, just before the Modi-Xi summit on Thursday morning, took the defence establishment here by surprise about the "strategic intent and message" behind the move.
Chinese President Xi Jinping with Indian Prime Minster Narendra Modi in New Delhi.
Tactically, the Indian positions at Chumar are better-placed on higher ground that "overlooks" the Chinese positions. Moreover, the Indian Army has 15 battalions (800 soldiers each) deployed across eastern Ladakh, including five Ladakh Scouts units as well as four units each under the 70 Kiari and 114 Tangtse brigades, all "acclimatised" for the high-altitude region.
"There are other reserve battalions under the 14 Corps headquartered at Leh. The PLA, however, cannot swiftly build up its troop strength in Chumar beyond a point, unlike many other stretches in eastern Ladakh," said a source.
Much like the 21-day Depsang faceoff in the Daulat Beg Oldie sector in April-May last year just before Chinese Premier Li Keqiang's visit to India, this time too there seemed to be a disconnect - a contrived one, most believe — between the political bonhomie at the top and PLA actions on the ground.
It had taken intensive diplomatic intervention to finally defuse the DBO faceoff after India dismantled "a tin shed" at Chumar and the PLA troops simultaneously withdrew from the Depsang Valley. Similarly, this time the Chinese troops are asking for Indian troops to demolish a recently-built hut at Tible near the LAC in the Chumar sector.
The ongoing Chumar faceoff once again junks the stipulation that "local or tactical border issues should be settled locally between local commanders on the ground" instead of letting them escalate to the political level, which was the cornerstone of the new border defence cooperation agreement (BDCA) inked between India and China in October last year.
Through the BDCA, India had pushed for "greater predictability and stability" in tackling border flare-ups. But PLA troops have already violated the BDCA provision that prohibits either side from tailing each other's patrol in areas where there is "no common understanding" and dispute over where the LAC actually lies. PLA troops, for instance, tailed Indian soldiers on at least two occasions in eastern Ladakh in June, which led India to lodge a formal protest with China.