The high-level talks for phased disengagement along the Indo-China Line of Actual Control (LAC) seem to have started bearing fruit with both Indian and Chinese troops withdrawing from the eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation positions pursuant to the agreement reached on June 30, 2020 during the talks at the Corps Commander level.
Indian troops have reportedly moved some 1.5 kms behind the site of the Galwan Valley clash on June 15, 2020, in eastern Ladakh contributing to a jointly created a kind of buffer region spanning 3.6-4 kms between the two armies. For the next 30 days, the Indian troops would not patrol the buffer zone so created, according to the agreement. The Chinese troops are said to have moved out of the Patrol Point 14 area completely and are also thinning their presence at Hot Springs and Gogra, and would be left in the strength agreed upon in two or three days.
However, the same report also says that the disengagement from China’s side has been “marginal” at Pangong Tso, and cites “a senior government official”, explaining that the first phase of disengagement aims that having “no eyeball-to-eyeball positions” with 30 soldiers on each side behind the buffer zone and another group of 50 soldiers on each side behind the first layer of 30, which makes a total of 160 soldiers — 80 soldiers from each side — within 6 kms.
Indian Army is still not in a position to patrol upto Patrol Point 14 as it did before the confrontation began. In the Finger 4 area of Pangong Tso, with only a few tents and some troops removed, the withdrawal by the Chinese is marginal. Indians could patrol upto Finger 8 before the stand-off, but have been restricted to Finger 4, which is where the Chinese claim line falls. From the Indian perspective, the Chinese intruded deep into the Indian side of the LAC and have now receded to some extent, which still leaves quite a bit of Indian territory beneath their feet. The position would get frozen and become the new LAC, if total disengagement is not immediately followed by a complete reversion to status quo ante. But to get China to agree to that would be far more difficult for India than bringing about a de-escalation.
Full disengagement set to be a long process
The road is still long and arduous, given that the same report cites the defense sources as saying that the initial disengagement and the necessary verification itself would take a couple of weeks and a full disengagement is “going to be a long process” while full disengagement alone would not suffice in absence of status quo ante, if China’s bid to unilaterally redraw the LAC is to be effectively defeated. On that front, China is most likely to dig its heels in and bid defiance.
Full disengagement alone would not suffice in absence of status quo ante.
That China is not going to easily back off on the LAC issue is borne out by the marked difference between the statements issued by Indian and Chinese officials regarding the current phase of disengagement. China’s statement does not even whisper LAC, let alone undertaking to respect it. All it says is that both sides “welcomed the progress achieved in the recent military and diplomatic meetings, agreed to stay in dialogue and consultation, and stressed the importance to promptly act on the consensus reached in the commander-level talks between Chinese and Indian border troops, and complete [the] disengagement of the front-line troops as soon as possible.”
Watch: Understanding India-China Disengagement in Ladakh
China has laid claim to the areas along the LAC, including the whole of the Galwan Valley, that have not been under dispute between India and China as far as the LAC is concerned. One of the unintended consequences of not having a clearly demarcated LAC is that it unwittingly encourages surreptitious encroachments as a means to unilaterally readjust the LAC. Building permanent and semi-permanent structures along the LAC is a way of concretizing the LAC, which India has been doing for the past few years to the displeasure of China.
What triggered Chinese encroachment?
It may seem to some that China has no business objecting to what India does on its side of the LAC, but such simplistic understanding ignores the crucial fact that the LAC is not a mutually agreed international border because there are territorial claims of each side to the regions on the other side of the LAC. Therefore, building permanent concrete structures and roads is looked upon by the other side as attempts to perpetuate the LAC, parts of which run through the claimed territories of the objecting side.
China might have seen India’s infrastructure projects in the bordering areas as an objectionable attempt to permanently fix the LAC. Seen in combination with India’s military stance during the Doklam face-off in 2017, India may have come across as an aggressive regional adversary to China. However, this is not the complete picture because while Doklam could have been a turning point in China’s perception of India, it does not adequately explain the recent Chinese intrusion into what India considers its side of the LAC, for this is not exactly the best time for China to act militantly and invite hostilities. So Doklam and the infrastructure projects in the border region can only be part of the build-up to the current situation, but the immediate trigger has to be something more important to China because this is not a low-cost, low-stake confrontation.
China might have seen India’s infrastructure projects in the bordering areas as an objectionable attempt to permanently fix the LAC.
By acting aggressively along the LAC, China has not only jeopardized Indo-China bilateral trade, which still stands in the vicinity of USD 12 billion, despite having declined from a historic USD 84.44 billion in 2017 but has also opened itself to international criticism and isolation at the time when it is already under fire from multiple quarters, led by the US, for its role in the COVID-19 pandemic, which is currently the foremost crisis of international concern.
With Sino-US relations in an accelerating downward spiral, the COVID-19 crisis taking a major toll on the global economy, which is bound to impact Chinese economy significantly, and a large population in the middle of an economic crisis at home, this looks like a particularly inopportune moment for China to take on the second-most populous nation on the planet in a military confrontation over a border dispute that has been dormant for decades.
Whatever the reasons, China saw the need to act urgently and in complete disregard of the risks involved throwing away the strategic understanding cultivated through decades of painstaking diplomacy between the two nations, which means it is not going to readily relent, and not without a gain of some sort. Indian diplomacy is in for long, testing times.