The present standoff between India and China ''can take any trajectory,'' top government officials have told NDTV, indicating that the possibility of a conflict, localised or across the region, cannot be ruled out. The room for dialogue and engagement at diplomatic and military levels, however, has not been ruled out and another round of Corps Commander-level talks has been agreed upon, though the date is yet to be decided. While expressing concern at the ground situation in South Pangong, officials said they believed that a war-like situation has not emerged as yet.
At the same time, it is believed that China's posturing along the frontier in eastern Ladakh ''is being controlled by the top, not by some exuberant local commanders".
NDTV has also learnt of some additional moves made by the Indian army to secure heights along Finger 4 on the north bank of Pangong lake in the last few days. Through this sizeable deployment, Indian soldiers presently occupy ''heights overlooking the Chinese deployment on Finger 4". Any Chinese move to counter this would mean a Chinese deployment to an altitude of approximately 6,000 metres, or nearly 19,700 feet, extremely challenging from a military stand-point. Indian and Chinese soldiers on Finger 4 ridges are presently separated by a few hundred metres.
Significantly, Indian soldiers deployed in South Pangong, where the Indian army pre-empted a Chinese effort to unilaterally alter the Line of Actual Control, have been given robust rules of engagement where they can respond with deadly force in the event that Chinese infantry soldiers close-in to their positions.
After 200 Chinese soldiers moved to dominate the heights in South Pangong on the night on August 29-30, Indian soldiers were deployed widely across the region dominating key positions such as Mukhpari, Gurung Hill, Magar Hill, Rezang La and Richin La. These soldiers have been told that they can engage Chinese forces if the perimeter defences of their positions, composed primarily of barbed wire, is breached. ''If they try to cross that, it will be a red line,'' sources said.
Any decision to engage Chinese forces with lethal forces will, however, be decided by local military commanders, who are monitoring the ground situation constantly.
On Monday, nearly 20 Chinese soldiers armed with spears attempted to evict Indian soldiers from their position on the LAC near Mukhpari. Chinese soldiers also fired warning shots. NDTV has now learnt that such attempts at intimidation by the Chinse are happening ''almost on a daily basis".
Government sources have explained that China does hold a few heights near the southern banks of the Pangong lake and that the Indian army does not dominate either Black Top or Helmet -- two features which are the Chinese side of the LAC.
China is believed to have installed a camera atop Black Top to monitor nearby areas. After the Chinese move in South Pangong was detected by Indian observation, there was ''a race for heights".
On the southern bank of Pangong, ''it was quits'' -- in other words, India and China dominate approximately the same number of key heights. However, India dominates the Spanggur Gap to the West and all Chinese positions along the banks of the Spanggur Tso, a lake in the region.
The ground situation in South Pangong remains tense. As many as 5,000 to 7,000 Chinese soldiers are deployed here with as many as 50,000 Chinese soldiers deployed across the LAC in Eastern Ladakh. ''We are 1-1 across Eastern Ladakh,'' said the top government official. ''If he expands [deploys more numbers], we will expand. It will not be business as usual,'' he added.
The Indian Army and the Air Force are working on a constant basis to monitor the air situation in Eastern Ladakh as China ''has built up sizeable number of air assets". 150 aircraft - fighters, helicopters, electronic warning assets and tankers -- have been deployed on the Chinese side of the LAC in the Ladakh theatre.
This presence is being matched by the Indian Air Force. Part of the process of identifying de-escalation in the region will be when the Chinese move back their air assets from the region including surface-to-air missile units, which have been widely deployed.
Despite the ground situation, there is hope that ''both sides are trying to stop the actual shooting from happening". There have been multiple rounds of talks at diplomatic and military levels which have resulted in partial Chinese withdrawal in the Galwan and North Pangong region, nowhere close to India's expectations after the Chinese moved into areas stretching from the Depsang Plains, Galwan, Hot Springs, Gogra, North and South Pangong in May this year.
With Indian and Chinese Foreign Ministers set to meet in Moscow later this week, and there is a sense of anticipation and hope that the potential for a clash between India and China is taken out of the equation. ''We are not in any position of weakness,'' asserted the top official who spoke to NDTV. If there is a conflict, ''there will be a price to pay on both sides".