Stark Himalayan terrain proves a brutal stage for Sino-Indian rivalry

The barren mountains of Ladakh in the remote Himalayas are among the world’s most inhospitable terrains, traditionally traversed by nomadic yak herders, a few hardy traders and zealous religious pilgrims.

Yet this stark and unforgiving geography — described by one colonial-era explorer as “a monotonous succession of giant cinder heaps” — is at the heart of an increasingly heated Sino-Indian border conflict.

After simmering quietly for decades, it erupted this week into deadly violence that claimed the lives of 20 Indian soldiers and also resulted in an unspecified number of Chinese casualties. The soldiers engaged in hand-to-hand combat in darkness on a narrow ridge, using improvised weapons such as batons wrapped in barbed wire, reports say. Chinese soldiers also held ten Indian troops captive for three days, before releasing them on Thursday night.

Both China and India are now reinforcing their positions on the desolate Himalayan plateau, adding more soldiers and machinery amid a tense stand-off at multiple points along their disputed 3,488km border, which has never been properly demarcated. Vast stretches that were previously left unmanned — with patrols only visiting occasionally — will be reinforced.

“We’ve been used to a hot line of control with Pakistan — now the line with China will be hotter than it has been,” a senior Indian government official told the FT. “Both sides will have a far greater mobilisation than previously. Areas that were not previously militarised will become militarised, and areas that saw occasional patrolling will see a more semi-permanent presence except in the height of winter.”

The Sino-Indian border dispute stems from historic 19th century rivalries known as the ‘Great Game’, during which British India, Imperial China, and Tsarist Russia vied for influence in central Asia and made grand — often conflicting — territorial claims. These were never resolved or settled but in recent decades New Delhi and Beijing have set aside the border issue to deepen economic ties, paving the way for booming bilateral trade and a surge of Chinese investment into India.

Chinese soldiers guard the border on the Nathu La mountain pass connecting India and China’s Tibet Autonomous Region during the Chola incident (or Sino-Indian skirmish) in October 1967 © Hulton Archive/Getty

On the ground, that initially meant Chinese and Indian troops would patrol their territory, including disputed areas, and when they met they would unfurl banners — or hold talks — asserting their rival claims before returning to their posts.

Increasingly, such meetings have degenerated into pushing, shoving, stone-pelting and ugly brawls, and sometimes protracted stand-offs, which New Delhi blames on assertive Chinese troops blocking Indian patrols. Protocols prohibiting firearm use, however, have prevented heavy escalation.

Both sides are also battling the extreme elements, including reduced oxygen levels and freezing temperatures, of a high-altitude cold desert, anywhere from 12,000 to 18,000 feet above sea level.

“The first and foremost thing is the survivability — just staying alive and overcoming all the effects of weather,” said Col (retired) S Dinny, a former commanding officer of an infantry battalion in the Indian army that was stationed at Pangong Lake. “It makes this an extremely challenging place to serve.”

Thin oxygen levels — just 60 per cent of those seen at sea-level — means soldiers tire easily and blood clots are a real threat. Soldiers also require a special, higher-protein diet and extra fluids to compensate for the high altitude and thin air.

“What you can do in one hour down below may require two hours there,” said Lt Gen (retired) HS Panag, India’s former northern army commander. “Walking becomes extremely difficult. You spend much more energy to do everything.”

Indian troops posted to Ladakh spend up to two weeks acclimatising. Temperatures too are extreme. Even in summer, night-time temperatures fall below zero, while in winter they can fall to between -35c and -40c. In winter, the roads to the Indian heartland are snowbound, so supplies must be airlifted in. “It’s close to the temperatures of Siberia,” said Lt Gen Panag, who spent two years posted there earlier in his career. “It’s a fascinating land — it reminds you sometimes of the lunar landscape.”

In the wake of this week’s killings, officials and analysts are warning of a heightened risk of conflict as patrols encounter each other more frequently. “This incident will have a lasting impact on Indian and Chinese views of each other,” said Paul Haenle, a former US national security official and director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing. 

Some analysts question if the bloodshed will finally force India and China to sit together to resolve the festering question of their boundary. Until now, Beijing has preferred to stall, expecting its relative economic and military strength vis-à-vis India to allow it to nibble away at Indian territory and give it the upper hand in talks over a final settlement.

“The larger strategic problem is still China’s reluctance to demarcate the line of actual control — that is what is at the root of all of this,” said Ashley Tellis, an expert in Asian strategic competition at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“They are in no hurry to conclude this process. Their calculation is that with every passing day, they get stronger. From China’s point of view, this ambiguity is far preferable [ to] . . . clarity on the ground.”

Additional reporting by Tom Mitchell in Singapore