Amid fresh row on LAC, India-China foreign ministers set to meet in Russia.

A fresh face-off between Indian and Chinese troops has added to the complexities of the situation on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) ahead of a meeting of the foreign ministers of the two countries that is being seen as crucial for a breakthrough in the impasse on the disputed border.

Hours before external affairs minister S Jaishankar departed for Moscow, where he is set to meet his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi on the margins of a Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meeting, Chinese troops attempted to close in on an Indian position along the LAC on Monday night and fired in the air when they were dissuaded.

The face-off, experts said, underlined the fragile situation along the LAC, especially after several incidents on the south bank of Pangong Lake during August 29-30. This is the first time that shots have been fired along the undemarcated border since 1975, when four Indian troopers were killed in a Chinese ambush in the Arunachal Pradesh sector.

Jaishankar is set to meet Wang on the sidelines of the SCO foreign ministers’ meeting on September 10 – the first time the two leaders will come face-to-face since the border standoff began in May. They spoke on phone on June 17, two days after a deadly clash in Galwan Valley that left 20 Indian soldiers dead and caused unspecified Chinese casualties.

Participating in an online interaction on Monday night to mark the release of his book The India Way, Jaishankar pointed to the serious situation on the LAC and underscored the need for “very deep conversations between the two sides at a political level”. He also made it clear India wouldn’t delink the border standoff from the overall bilateral relationship.

Vipin Narang, associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said Monday’s face-off illustrated the urgency of reducing friction between troops of the two sides.

“I don’t think either India or China have an incentive to go to war over the border dispute, but the increasing intensity and persistence of friction, along with air activity and the presence of loaded firearms may cause them to ‘stumble’ into war,” he said.

“An advertent or inadvertent incident at a local flashpoint could now really fuel a broader conflict that neither government wants, as the forces continue to come into contact with each other,” Narang added.

At least half a dozen meetings held by local brigade commanders from the two sides since the incidents of August 29-30 have failed to quell tensions on the south bank of Pangong Lake, which has emerged as the latest friction point. Several meetings of the corps commanders and the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination (WMCC) on border affairs too have failed to take forward the stalled disengagement and de-escalation process.

The negotiations have been stuck on several key issues, including the mode for determining how troops should pull back at friction points, people familiar with developments said on condition of anonymity. Chinese officials have been insisting that troops from both sides should withdraw for an equal distance, while the Indian side has said the withdrawal should be determined according to time it takes troops on each side to deploy to the LAC, the people said.

“For instance, in some stretches, a kilometre can be covered by troops on one side in 10 minutes, whereas a kilometre on the other side can be covered by troops in five minutes. Both sides should withdraw to a distance where it takes equal time to deploy to the border,” said one of the persons cited above.

Experts said the upcoming meeting between Jaishankar and Wang assumes significance following the lack of a breakthrough in recent talks between defence minister Rajnath Singh and his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe, who too met on the margins of a SCO meeting in Moscow on September 4.

Wei contended the responsibility for the tensions lies entirely with India, while Singh said the actions of Chinese troops, including their aggressive behaviour and attempts to unilaterally alter the status quo, violated several bilateral agreements.

Rajiv Bhatia, distinguished fellow for foreign policy studies at Gateway House, said the latest face-off should be seen as “part of Chinese mindgames before the meeting of the foreign ministers to build pressure on the Indian side to get it to make concessions”.

“The Chinese are very conscious of how the Indian government is projecting the link between border tensions and the overall relationship. At the same time, the Indian side has emphasised negotiations and dialogue for an amicable settlement. No one may expect a miracle at the dialogue in Moscow but everyone is looking at it with some hope,” he said.

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