SRINAGAR – As a monthslong military standoff between India and China along their disputed mountain border protracts, experts warn that the nuclear-armed countries — which already have engaged in their bloodiest clash in decades — could unintentionally slide into war.
For 45 years, a series of agreements, written and unwritten, maintained an uneasy truce along the border on the eastern edge of the Himalayan region of Kashmir. But moves and clashes over the past few months have made the situation unpredictable, raising the risk that a miscalculation from either side could have serious consequences that resonate beyond the cold-desert region.
“The situation is very dangerous on the ground and can spiral out of control,” said Lt. Gen. D.S. Hooda, who was head of the Indian military’s Northern Command from 2014 to 2016. “A lot will depend on whether the two sides are able to control the volatile situation and make sure it doesn’t spread to other areas.”
The two Asian giants have held several rounds of talks, mainly involving military commanders, without success. In a sign that the talks are now shifting to the political level, their defense ministers met in the Russian capital on Friday to try end the impasse. It was the first high-level direct contact between the sides since the standoff erupted in the Ladakh region four months ago.
Last week, the world's two most populous nations, which share thousands of kilometers (miles) of disputed border, accused each another of fresh provocations, including allegations of soldiers crossing into each other’s territory.
India said its soldiers thwarted “provocative” movements by China’s military twice last week. In turn, China’s Defense Ministry accused Indian troops of crossing established lines of control and creating provocations along the border.
Tensions first erupted in early May with a brawl between soldiers from the two sides. The situation escalated dramatically in June when they fought with clubs, stones and fists, leaving 20 Indian soldiers dead and dozens wounded. China did not report any casualties.
The standoff is over disputed portions of a pristine landscape in a region that boasts the world’s highest landing strip and a glacier that feeds one of the largest irrigation systems in the world.