By Mohan Guruswamy
The joint announcement of Foreign Minister S Jaishankar and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Moscow (no doubt helped along by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow for the Russia-India-China (RIC) trilateral is being clutched at like straws by desperate drowning men hoping for an end to the crisis. In case we have forgotten RIC is the geo-political group formed to balance growing US and NATO unilateralism. The operative part of the joint statement is that the military commanders’ level talks will continue. The audible sigh of relief in certain circles may be premature for talking doesn’t mean a solution. Right now it only means a postponement of armed conflict.
We have two outstanding issues between India and China. The larger one is about large tracts of territory in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh. These two territorial disputes are not going to be resolved even in the foreseeable long term. Hence, Deng Xiaoping sagaciously suggested to Rajiv Gandhi in their 1988 meeting in Beijing that it is best left to history.
The pressing dispute on hand is the two overlapping LACs. The term LAC was first used by Zhou Enlai in November 1959 when he wrote to Jawaharlal Nehru defining it as “the so-called McMahon Line in the east and the line up to which each side exercises actual control in the west”. The problem is that India and China never agreed on where the LAC was, as the perceptions of what each side “controlled” varied, by a few meters to tens of kilometers. For instance, in the Sikkim sector where they vary at a few places, the actual overlap often is a few meters. This variation is because both sides are vying for better tactical positions to locate their bunkers and sangars or small built-up structures on higher ground to observe the other side. In the Depsang Plains overlooking DBO, it is by as much as 20-30 kilometers.
DBO overlooks the Chip Chap River as it curls southward to its rendezvous with the Shyok. The entire Chip Chap river was accepted by China as Indian territory even in 1956, but by 1960 China advanced its LAC to about four kilometers of DBO and built a garrison at Tianwendian about 24 kilometers away. The PLA launches patrols from here into the contested Depsang. They have done the same in the Galwan valley. In 1962 the Indian post was at the source of the Galwan River at Samzungling and the LAC is now about two kilometers upstream of the confluence of the Galwan and Shyok rivers.
Despite having two often widely overlapping LACs, Indian and Chinese forces had arrived at a unique modus vivendi since 1962 which enabled each side to patrol up to its perception of the LAC without confrontation. The desire for peace made both sides to cobble up agreements from time to time. The 1993 agreement made it incumbent for both sides to caution each other whenever their perceived LACs were crossed.
Though the agreement stipulated that any dispute both sides would jointly check this and decide upon an alignment, it never happened. Then in 1996, both sides agreed to “exercise restraint when the patrols come face to face”. This agreement also stipulated that both sides would not use firearms or explosives two kilometers from their perceived LACs. Both sides adhered to this, but now the patrols while not confronting each other began tailing each other maintaining a distance between them. This agreement also obliged both sides not to construct anything of a permanent nature in the LAC overlaps.
This worked till 2013 when the PLA objected to the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) leaving behind re-usable shelters at a place called Chumar. In May that year, a tailed PLA patrol decided to dig in midway between the two LACs in Depsang at a place called Rakhi Nula. This forced an Indian Army unit to dig in nearby. This crisis was resolved by a meeting between the local military commanders with the Indian side agreeing to dismantle the Chumar structures and the PLA pulling out. This led to the more complex 2013 agreement, once again aimed at conflict prevention and conflict resolution, but not fixing the cause of conflict.
This is where we were when the PLA taking advantage of Indian Army tardiness in not mirroring the annual PLA exercises in the area dug in positions in the Galwan Valley, Hot Springs, Ghogra, and between Fingers 4 and 8 on the north bank of the Pangong Tso. In Galwan the new PLA position is now less than two kilometers from the upgraded 230 kilometers long road from Darbuk to DBO road. The Indian Army has now positioned itself counter threateningly on the Chushul heights.
The timing of the crisis couldn’t be worse. India was in the midst of a major economic meltdown brought about by the spread of the Covid19 virus from Wuhan. The electronic media, no doubt prodded by the Modi government, went into a fury over the “Chinese perfidy” and Narendra Modi and Rajnath Singh made fire and brimstone speeches ostensibly to the troops at Ladakh. The Indian military build-up was under the full glare of the embedded media and newly acquired military hardware was displayed. Like angry Bharatanatyam dancers both sides are now semaphoring intentions to each other.
Simultaneously, the Indian Army and PLA commanders have been in talks from June 16 seeking disengagement. The question is who withdraws and to where? This requires the determination of a single LAC. This is beyond the ken of the military commanders of both sides. Military men are usually loathed to withdraw to tactically disadvantageous positions. But the need now is to give and take. This, therefore, calls for mediation between the two militaries, and that is best done by a trusted third country military. A neutral military mediator can understand the tactical security concerns of either side and can help in determining the optimal under the circumstances.
The three countries have invested big in RIC and now is the time to make it pay. The stakes are big. Even a limited Sino-Indian war will mean the end of RIC and its promise of a multi-polar world.
Russia is uniquely placed to play the role of a neutral mediator to help the two countries find an agreement on one LAC. It enjoys a good measure of trust in both countries. One hopes that both countries will find the good sense to accept mediation.
Mr Mohan Guruswamy, served as an advisor to Ministry of Finance and hold three decades of experience in government, industry and academia. An alumni of Osmania University-Hyderabad; John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University; Guruswamy is a policy analyst studying economic and security issues.