For more than 18 weeks now, thousands of Indian and Chinese forces have been locked in an unprecedented stand-off along their 3,488km (2,167 mile) undemarcated boundary known as the Line of Actual Control (LAC), which ranges from the Karakoram mountain range in the north to the trijunction with Myanmar in the east.

The stand-off, sparked by skirmishes between troops in early May at the glacial lake named Pangong Tso in the western Himalayan region of Ladakh and in the north-eastern Indian region of Sikkim, escalated this week when the two sides accused each other of firing warning shots, breaking a four decade-old practice of not using firearms. Earlier this week, Indian government sources were quoted in media reports saying there were more than 50,000 Chinese troops along the LAC. On Friday, media reports quoted Indian army sources saying that thousands of troops were now “within firing range” of each other and were separated by a few metres at Pangong Tso, even as Chinese Foreign minister Wang Yi and his Indian counterpart S. Jaishankar agreed on Thursday to de-escalate tensions.

But with political relations still sour and troops still eyeball-to-eyeball at the border, are the two sides really on the road to a resolution?

What Led To This Year’s Confrontation?

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had previously agreed that 2020 would be the year of India-China cultural relations and people-to-people ties.

But their seven decade-old boundary dispute – which resulted in a short-lived but full-blown war in 1962 – flared in early May, when soldiers clashed at Pangong Tso in Ladakh and Naku La in India’s north-eastern state of Sikkim.

Troop “face-offs”, where soldiers come face-to-face during patrolling, leading to skirmishes, are common. They are sparked by the lack of demarcation of the border, leading to both armies patrolling the areas according to their own perceptions of the LAC.

Usually they are resolved without incident but sometimes they lead to low-level, localised violence – from jostling to throwing rocks to screaming matches. Sometimes they have turned into stand-offs, where both sides line troops up along their territories for extended periods.

This has happened frequently in the western sector, the site of the current stand-off, and where Chinese-controlled Aksai Chin and Indian-controlled Ladakh are located.

In late May, after the two clashes, Chinese troops objected to India’s construction of a road at the valley of the Galwan River. The road connected the valley, close to the LAC, to the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie (DS-DBO) highway. This led to both sides lining up troops along various points of the LAC, from Pangong Tso to Hot Springs and Gogra.

On June 6, the Corps Commanders of both armies met in the Chushul-Moldo region where they agreed “to peacefully resolve the situation”. But nine days later, there was a brutal clash between the two armies at the Galwan Valley, near a Chinese outpost. About 20 Indian soldiers were killed and over 70 were injured. China, however, did not release any details about the casualties that it suffered.

How Have Things Escalated Since June?

The incident at Galwan shattered the uneasy peace and brought to the fore the precarious situation that the undemarcated LAC has created.

In the absence of a common understanding of the LAC, the Indian and Chinese armies operate on a string of written and unwritten agreements. For instance, in 1993, the two countries signed the ‘Agreement on the maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity along the LAC in India-China border areas’. The agreement laid down rules of engagement. These included keeping only low-level military presences along the border, not using force and not carrying out military exercises in disputed areas.

However, the June 15 clash showed these agreements no longer held. It meant that while there have been at least 17 rounds of talks at the military, diplomatic and political levels since June, they have had little bearing on the ground situation.

Both countries have claims on the northern banks, where the finger-like ridges of the mountain range are the site of massive deployments by both sides. According to reports in the Indian media, officials admitted that since the stand-off, China had been occupying more than 1,000 square kilometres of territory claimed by India.

On the southern banks of the lake, in the Chushul sector, there have been at least two fresh face-offs. On August 30, the Indian Army released a statement saying it had “pre-empted” some “provocative” military movements by the PLA. Sources said Indian forces had gone on to occupy heights in the region along the LAC that gave it a vantage point of Chinese deployments and movements.

According to military sources, the action was necessary for two reasons. “One is, it helps our operations by giving us better sights of the Chinese. The other is, tactically, it puts the pressure back on them,” said a source. Eight days later, on September 7, the two sides accused each other of firing “ warning shots ” in the air at Mukhpari heights, in the same Chushul sector. A news report in The Hindu newspaper quoted Indian army sources saying that on both occasions, shots had been fired in the air. According to media reports, the Indian government had, already, changed the rules of engagement to allow soldiers to use weapons if the situation demands.

What Are Their Positions Now?

Officially, both sides say they want to maintain peace and will commit to “new confidence building measures”, according to Wang and Jaishankar’s statement.

Beijing said India was not its “competitor” but called on it to refrain from “provocative actions”, while New Delhi has maintained its concern over the number of troops massing at the LAC, saying the priority is for them to retreat from their forward positions.

But this year’s stand-off has had an indelible impact on people-to-people relations. The June 15 deaths for India marked the first casualties along the China border in over four decades, since 1975, when four Indian soldiers were shot by Chinese troops at Tulung La in Arunachal Pradesh. As a result, public sentiment in India, suspicious at the best of times, has grown increasingly hostile towards China.

“What has changed is now, even the elite, especially in the diplomatic community in New Delhi who had favoured peaceful ties with China, are turning against it,” said Dr Rajeshwari Pillai Rajagopalan, a distinguished fellow and head of the Nuclear and Space Policy initiative at the New Delhi think tank, the Observer Research Foundation (ORF).

Hence, New Delhi, while engaging in talks, has targeted China in recent months – from limiting Chinese investments in Indian businesses to banning Chinese imports and machinery as well as banning 177 Chinese mobile applications, including TikTok.

Similarly, within China, nationalist sentiments against India have been growing. A survey published by the nationalist tabloid Global Times, conducted jointly with the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, a state-affiliated research group, found that more than 90 per cent of the 2,000 respondents backed the government in retaliating strongly against India while more than 70 per cent felt India was being too hostile towards China.

Yun Sun, a senior fellow and the director of the China Programme at the Washington-based Stimson Centre think tank, said these sentiments showed how far military or diplomatic talks could go in resolving the crisis.

“I think the tension is an accurate reflection of the domestic politics, external environment, as well as the national power and domestic public opinions of both countries,” said Sun.

Will They Go To War? Is Nuclear Warfare An Option?

While the stand-off has exceeded the 70-day face-off in 2017 at Doklam Plateau at the trijunction with Bhutan, analysts say war is unlikely. Sun of the Stimson Centre said the skirmishes were unlikely to lead to war because “the decision to fight a war must be a political one”.

Militarily too, a war does not seem imminent, according to retired Lieutenant General Rakesh Sharma, a military analyst who formerly commanded the Fire and Fury Corps in Ladakh.

“The quantum of force that both countries would require to fight a war here would be immense. At this point, neither country has made such deployments that signify an intent for war,” Sharma said. According to him, a war would not be restricted to the western sector and would be likely to spill over to the eastern and middle sectors. “But on those sectors, there is hardly any deployment at all by either side right now,” he said.

But the fear of war, he said, was real, especially since the last two clashes happened in the Chushul sector, a region very sensitive for Chinese interests.

“At Rezang La, the Chinese cantonment at Rutog is only 90km away. In addition, there is also a camp at Moldo that becomes within reach,” he said, adding that even the Chinese G219 highway connecting Xinjiang and Tibet was closer to the LAC here than it was up north in Dapsang.

This situation is made even more fearsome by the fact that both countries are nuclear armed. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute has estimated that China has 320 nuclear warheads while India has 150.

Rajagopalan from ORF said the situation was fraught with danger. “It does not give me a lot of confidence.”

What Happens If The Stand-Off Continues?

The Wang-Jaishankar meeting on Thursday reached common ground on de-escalating tensions but the stand-off has also shown the limitations of such understandings.

Kanwal Sibal, a career diplomat who was Indian Foreign Secretary from July 2002 to November 2003, said the joint statement did not break any new ground and seemed to be a repetition of what had been said before, given that both sides would favour a non-military solution.

The situation had become very complex and retreat by either side would be very difficult, he suggested.

“China as the aggressor has to make the bigger effort but as the stronger power will want India to bend more. There is no breakthrough in sight. We are in for the long haul,” Sibal added.

Rajagopalan said the stand-off was likely to continue through the winter. Between October and March, temperatures in the Ladakh region fall drastically and reach as low as -60 degrees Celsius in the upper regions. This combined with heavy wind and hostile terrain – high ridges opening to steep drops, frozen lakes and mountains – make it challenging to sustain troop increases.

“In some ways, whoever has the bigger troop build-up will have to work harder to keep them there in the winter,” Sharma said, adding that both sides would have to build new infrastructure to shelter its soldiers.

Yet neither country is likely to let its guard down.

“There is such a trust deficit between the two countries that India would not want to leave any of her posts unmanned for the fear that the Chinese would come and occupy it. If that happens, how do we vacate them?” he said.

The Indian establishment is also conscious of the threat of a two-front war, with China on the eastern and Pakistan on the western front simultaneously coordinating military action against it. India’s top military general and chief of defence staff General Bipin Rawat last week said such a scenario was “real” and India was “ready” for it.

But even if a full-blown military conflict is avoided, that would not rule out similar clashes and tensions along the LAC, say analysts.

Sun from the Stimson Centre said this might have a silver lining in that it may force the countries to agree a more definite boundary.

“With more troops and stand-offs, the two sides will gradually develop a common understanding as for who is located where,” she added.

Until that happens, ties between the two countries face an uncertain future and expectations are low that they will return to normal in the foreseeable future.

Said Rajagopalan: “I think it will be a few decades before India-China ties get back to even a semblance of normalcy.”