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'Disengagement process likely to prove to be temporary fix without overhaul of thinking about contested borders in mountains'

ANI | Updated: Jul 16, 2020 13:46 IST

New Delhi [India], July 16 (ANI): The disengagement process between India and China is "likely to prove to be only a temporary fix without a major overhaul of thinking about contested borders in the mountains and high cold deserts between South and Central Asia", suggests Myra Macdonald.
On June 15, 20 Indian soldiers were killed during combat with Chinese forces in Galwan valley, leading to tensions between both nations. China has not revealed its casualties in the clash.
In an article in 'War on the Rocks', Macdonald said there are significant differences between Sino-Indian and Sino-Pakistani relationships and between the way their disputed frontiers and demarcation lines are managed.
"However, there are enough similarities to discern some common threads. All three -- the Line of Actual Control, the Siachen frontline and the Line of Control -- form a chain around the periphery of Ladakh," she said.
Macdonald stressed the contestation over these demarcation lines happens at high altitude in remote and rough terrain far from the civilian population. "Instability and conflict are driven both by tactical and broader confrontations. All three demarcation lines are becoming highly militarised frontiers in a region where previously no fixed borders existed."
She noted that dispute over Aksai Chin, disagreements over the border between India and China far to the east, a broader contestation for power in Asia, along with Chinese sensitivities over Tibet, eventually led to a 1962 border war.
"Ladakh's once fluid borders slammed shut, leaving it separated from neighboring Gilgit-Baltistan by the India-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir and from Tibet and Xinjiang by the India-China border row. Since then, India has been steadily moving to shore up gaps in the ill-defined frontiers that run around periphery of Ladakh," she said.
Macdonald underlined that this is not necessarily India's fault as the country has "often responded to choice made either by China or by Pakistan."
"Yet looking at these various frontlines over the long term, it is far from clear that seeking militarised fixed borders in the uninhabited mountains and high, cold deserts on the periphery of Ladakh is contributing to stability," she said.
Referring to the Siachen conflict between India and Pakistan, Macdonald claims: "In 1984, both countries made plans to occupy the Saltoro ridge that overlooks the Siachen glacier -- not because they particularly wanted it, but because they did not want the other side to have it."
"Initially Indian plans had been to put on a show of force over the summer -- nobody had ever spent the winter in Siachen. But as fighting intensified, both armies dug in for the winter and remain there to this day," she said.

The Siachen War, she stated, was grim even by the usual standards of warfare. "Yet once the war started, it proved impossible to end. Instead, the armies of India and Pakistan sprawled ever outwards as they jostled each other for advantage."
Macdonald called it part of the "inexorable logic" of mountain warfare that for every new post that is set up, there is always another high position nearby that looks like it might be useful to help defend it. "The two armies eventually reached near the Line of Control."
Furthermore, she pointed to Kargil war that took place in 1999 when Pakistan "dusted off a military plan first drawn up in the late 1980s to attack Indian supply lines to Siachen".
She highlighted that after several months of fierce, high-altitude fighting, Pakistan was forced to pull back its troops when it came under intense international pressure led by the United States.
"But even after the Pakistani retreat, India was compelled to increase its year-round presence in the mountains above the Kargil region, exposing hundreds more troops to the deadly consequences of deployment at high altitude. It was what the Kargil Review Committee, set up by India after the Kargil War, described as the "Siachenisation of the Kargil Heights"," she said.
Macdonald said a similar trend of filling out towards the frontiers has happened on the eastern periphery of Ladakh.
While noting India has been developing infrastructure on its side of the Line of Actual Control, Macdonald noted that this includes the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi Road which connects the Ladakhi capital, Leh, with a high-altitude airstrip near the Chinese frontier.
"While this work was carried out in part in response to Chinese road-building on its side, it has also become ensnared in the perverse logic of mountain warfare: for every new position staked out to shore up defenses, another one beyond needs to be defended to protect it. Thus India became all the more determined to maintain its toehold in the Galwan Valley in order to protect the Daulat Beg Oldi Road," she said while adding that in the months and years ahead, India may well end up having to post more soldiers along the Line of Actual Control, exposing them to the perils of high altitude and rough terrain.
Macdonald cautioned that tendency to fill out towards frontiers is accompanied by a serious risk of miscalculation, in part due to a misreading of the intentions of the other side. She said one of the few certainties in the high altitude warfare in these mountains is that the situation always looks different from the other side.
"The risk of miscalculation is all the higher given that many parts of the demarcation lines around the periphery of Ladakh do not follow any obvious topography, determined by natural features like rivers and ridgelines," she said.
She concludes that there are no easy answers to minimising conflict on the frontiers and demarcation lines on the periphery of erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir.
"A softening of borders to restore old trade ties would be ideal but looks unlikely in the near term. So too would be mutual withdrawal from flashpoints and the creation of large buffer zones. The trend, however, has been in the other direction, with armies filling out to the frontiers. In the short term, perhaps the best that can be done is to re-examine all the assumptions and miscalculations accumulated over years and even decades, that in turn created the conditions for last month's clashes in Galwan," she said. (ANI)