Indo China Standoff: De-escalation a long haul

It has taken 10 rounds of diplomatic and military level talks between the two neighbors India and China for the disengagement process to begin in the eastern Ladakh region, nearly nine months after India and China got embroiled in their worst border tensions since the 1967 clash.

By TJ Reddy  Published on  15 March 2021 5:30 AM GMT
Indo China Standoff: De-escalation a long haul

It has taken 10 rounds of diplomatic and military level talks between the two neighbors India and China for the disengagement process to begin in the eastern Ladakh region, nearly nine months after India and China got embroiled in their worst border tensions since the 1967 clash. A grueling winter deployment resulting in higher Chinese casualties than Indian, Beijing's understanding that New Delhi is not backing down, coupled with the upcoming 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party in July are believed to be the reasons why China finally came around to disengaging at Pangong Tso in Ladakh. Army Chief was categorical when he said "The rising footprints of China in India's neighborhood and its attempts to unilaterally alter the status quo along our disputed borders have created an environment of confrontation and mutual distrust". Foreign affairs minister had remarked how China's aggression across the LAC in Ladakh has "profoundly disturbed" the relationship

This is thus the beginning of an all-encompassing agreement, which will be finalized in the next few months to diffuse the crisis in eastern Ladakh and mend the fractured relationship between the two nations. Indian and Chinese soldiers have undertaken a trust-and-verify disengagement in the high Himalayas in Ladakh, beginning with the Pangong Tso north and south banks.

Disengagement process: Explaining the disengagement process which, according to Lt Gen YK Joshi the Northern Army Commander, has been put in writing, ratified by the headquarters, and put into action, consists of four steps, each of which is to be followed up by monitoring and verification. Step 1 of the disengagement process involves armored and mechanized units moving back beyond the designated lines. Step 2 and 3 include moving the infantries from the northern and southern banks of Pangong Tso, and Step 4 is disengagement from the Kailash range. Only once a step is complete to the satisfaction of both armies will they graduate to the next.

"Every day begins with a flag meeting to confirm the day's activities, and at the end of the day, hotline messages are exchanged to confirm that each side has done its part. We are continuously monitoring. As and when required, satellite images and Air Force photo recce missions are also undertaken. In case of any grey area or doubt, the same is clarified in the flag meeting." The Northern Army Commander added that a review of the implementation of the disengagement plan is also carried out during the next day's flag meeting, and contentious issues, if any, are raised and discussed. With this verification process, full disengagement and de-escalation are bound to take long.

Proposals of the agreement for disengagement: The 134-km Pangong Lake's northern bank juts out like a palm, and the various protrusions are identified as "fingers" to demarcate territory. Two-thirds of the lake, which extends from Tibet to Ladakh, is controlled by China, while the LAC passes through the lake itself, because of which both sides patrol it on land and in the water. The troops around the Pangong Tso lake have moved back to pre-April 2020 locations, as per the understanding reached by the two countries, under which Indian soldiers will move back to their last permanent base in the 'Finger' area, which is the Dhan Singh Thapa post of the ITBP, just short of Finger 3.Similarly, Chinese troops will go back to their permanent post, which is beyond Finger 8 and is known as the Sirijap post. While Indian troops are mainly based at Finger 2, the LAC is located at Finger 8. Indian troops used to travel by foot and were usually stopped by the Chinese at Finger 4 or 5.

The Chinese had managed to build a road till Finger 5 during the Kargil War, and they would travel by vehicles whenever they used to see Indian foot patrols. Indians cannot take vehicles beyond Finger 3 because the path to Finger 4 is very narrow and can be accessed only by foot. While the Chinese claim the area to Finger 2 as their territory, they can only reach Finger 4 on land because vehicles can't go beyond that point. According to former Army Chief Gen VP Malik, the temporary freeze on patrolling between 'Finger 4' and 'Finger 8' on the northern bank of Pangong Tso was essential to avoid clashes and should not be considered as ceding of territory to China. Lt Gen Joshi asserts: "The fact is that it is a huge success for us. First, PLA is moving back beyond our claim line, that is Finger 8. Second, this agreement denies them the advantage of patrolling till Finger 4. In fact, the PLA will not be carrying out any activity, military or otherwise, in the areas claimed by us. Third, they will be restoring the entire landform within our claim line and dismantling all the structures that were created post-April 2020. Hence, the realities have to be understood in the correct perspective". A similar action was taken by both sides in the South Bank area.

The progress of disengagement at the time of going to print is that, after the process of disengagement started on February 10th and completed smoothly, India and China have agreed to disengage in Gogra & Hot Springs after talks but no consensus has been reached yet on Depsang and Demchok. Withdrawal is also taking place from the Kailash Range, which Indian soldiers climbed in late August, taking the Chinese by surprise. That key maneuver is widely believed to have helped turn the direction of the ongoing face-off in India's favor.

Friction points and pragmatic solutions: The 10th round of Corps Commander-level talks 'discussed in detail' the situation at Depsang, Patrolling Point 15 (Hot Springs), Gogra, and Demchok. India has asked China to withdraw from all these friction points. According to officials, both sides have proposed plans to disengage at these friction points and now the proposals will be discussed in Beijing and New Delhi. According to sources, of the four friction points on the table at the tenth meeting, Depsang was the most contentious. In Depsang, the Chinese claim, the line passes through Barbad Morcha near the Y junction which India has disputed as it involves close to 1,000 sq kilometers of territory.

This plateau also controls access to the strategically important Daulat Beg Oldie airstrip and to the Karakoram Range. This is the first time that the Chinese have come to the negotiation table to discuss Depsang. Since 2013, China has blocked Indian patrols to Patrolling Point 10, 11, 11A, 12, and 13 at the Depsang Bulge. Officials said the other friction points at PP15 (Hot Springs), Patrolling Point 14 (Galwan), and 17A (Gogra) are relatively easier to resolve. Galwan clashes had happened on PP14 on June 15, 2020, killing 20 soldiers on the Indian side and at least 45 on the Chinese side, as per Indian assessment.

A demarcated 1959 Claim Line (except in Demchok area), with buffer zones in Depsang Plains and north of Pangong Tso appears a very pragmatic solution. According to analysts, giving up our dominant deployment along the Kailash Range can be compensated by extending the agreement to include a 20-kilometer demilitarized zone on either side of the LAC, with precautions that would have to be taken to cater for breach of trust common in such situations.

Tailpiece: India has to swallow the bitter pill and accept that past agreements are passé, and the new reality must be faced squarely. Never in the past, the country had witnessed a common aggressive approach - the foreign minister's stated determination based on the political will be articulated by Prime Minister and Defence Minister, with behind the scene backing of the political vision by the Army Chief insisting that the Army had the will and the wherewithal to block the Chinese.

The Indian Army's willingness to stand up to the Chinese and the vastly improved air power of the Indian Air Force fully deployed to face the challenge gave the political leadership the space to hold firm. While the rest of the world watched, India, with one-fifth the economy of China faced off against the People's Liberation Army (PLA) in Ladakh. India has strengthened itself geo-politically, strategically, and economically. It is too early to hope for peace and tranquility as before along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh. The situation calls for LoC-type deployment on LAC and the continuation of strategic and economic measures adopted against China.

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