Military experts fear China and India’s months-long border dispute could escalate as new satellite images suggest China is ramping up its weapons capabilities in a nearby city.
Satellite images reportedly show the accelerated construction of two new runways at the Hotan airbase, its nearest base to the disputed Ladakh region, according to India Today.
Col Vinayak Bhat, who has spent more than 30 years with the Indian Army and is an satellite imagery analyst, explained for the television network the stills also showed the construction of new buildings believed to be barracks and ammunition storage facilities.
The runway construction began in June and the ammunition buildings began cropping up in July, but operations are stepping up, India Today reported as speculation grows that China is preparing to bring stealth J-20 aircraft into the region.
Col Bhat said the airbase was possibly being upgraded for the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) – the elite force responsible for China's nuclear and conventional missiles.
China and India accused each other of initiating an exchange of fire in in Eastern Ladakh on Monday.
India said Chinese troops had opened fire in the air to intimidate Indian troops, while China had made the same claim, The Times of India reported. The publication said India had moved troops into the mountains of the north bank of Pangong Tso over the weekend.
Indian and Chinese troops have been locked in a border confrontation for months in the high-altitude snow deserts of Ladakh, and have held talks to reduce friction. The two have disputed the course of the frontier for over half a century.
India and China share a disputed 3,500-kilometre border, known as the Line of Actual Control, that stretches from the Ladakh region in the north to the Indian state of Sikkim.
In recent days both sides have been accusing each other of encroaching on opposing territory.
Chinese state-run publication the Global Times quoted an army spokesperson saying the Indian Army had “again illegally crossed the Line of Actual Control” on Monday.
China claims soldiers fired warning shots on the south bank of the Pangong Lake following the crossing.
Yet the Indian army insisted it had been China whose “provocative military actions” had triggered the latest dispute, the Hindustan Times reported.
Situation ‘very dangerous’, military expert warns
“The situation is very dangerous on the ground and can spiral out of control,” said Lieutenant-General 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.”
Chinese and Indian defence ministers meet
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 defence ministers met in the Russian capital on Friday to try end the impasse.
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.
Troops were seen boarding planes and trains on state television station CCTV, with army personnel boasting of new capabilities to deploy troops in “just a few hours”.
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.
Lt Gen Hooda said that while he doesn’t think either side is looking for full-scale war, the “real calamity” is the breakdown of existing agreements and protocols.
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