Simultaneous statements from India and China followed by the clarifications from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) indicated that an agreement to pull back troops from the northern and southern banks had been reached. The process has begun and agreement for other friction points would be taken up after the completion of the withdrawal at the Pangong Lake. Thus, this is only the first phase of the disengagement process.
The Indian defence minister Sri Rajnath Singh made the following points in the Parliament on the 11th Feb-21.
Our sustained talks with China have led to agreement on disengagement on the north and south banks of Pangong Lake.
India-China will remove forward deployments in a phased, coordinated and verified manner.
China will keep its troops to the east of the Finger 8 at the north bank of Pangong Lake. India will keep its troops at its permanent base near Finger 3. Similar exercise of disengagement in the south of the lake would take place.
Defence Minister while assuring that “India will not compromise even an inch of its land to anyone,” further added, “Disengagement at all friction points will happen and the status quo will be restored”.
India has clarified to China three principles on which agreement would be based. First, both parties must agree on LAC and respect it; second, there should not be any attempt to change unilaterally the status quo; and third, all agreements should be completely adhered to by both the parties.
Till further agreement, the patrolling in the north Lake has been stopped temporarily by both sides.
There are many issues including patrolling are yet to be resolved. Within 48 hours of withdrawal, another meeting will take place to resolve other issues.
China on the same day stated that the Chinese and Indian troops on the southern and northern shores of Pangong Tso began “synchronized and organized disengagement” in line with the consensus reached between Corps Commanders when they last met on January 24. “We hope the Indian side will work with China to meet each other halfway, strictly implement the consensus reached between the two sides and ensure the smooth implementation of the disengagement process,” Wang Wen bin the Chinese spokesperson said.
Subsequently on 12th Feb. the MoD issued a strongly worded statement taking note of some misinformed and misleading comments being amplified in media and social media to set the record straight and counter certain instances of wrongly understood information.
The MoD stated, “India has not conceded any territory as a result of the agreement. On the contrary, it has enforced observance and respect for LAC and prevented any unilateral change in the status quo.” It further added, “The assertion that Indian territory is up to Finger 4 is categorically false. The territory of India is as depicted by the map of India and includes more than 43,000 sq km currently under illegal occupation of China since 1962. Even the Line of Actual Control (LAC), as per the Indian perception, is at Finger 8, not at Finger 4. That is why India has persistently maintained the right to patrol up to Finger 8, including in the current understanding with China.”
In essence, it is a beginning and much would depend not only on the withdrawal from the north and south banks of the Pangong lake but also settling other issues leading to de-escalation along the entire LAC. In the East Ladakh, the armies were facing each other at several points eyeball to eyeball. This arrangement was justified on the ground that it was necessary to avoid any untoward incident.
There are a number of issues which are yet to be kept in our calculus. First, whether China is sincere in implementing the consensus reached in letter and spirit. Earlier in July an agreement for disengagement had been reached but the Chinese side refused to complete the agreed process that resulted in escalation in the deployment and there was scramble for heights by both sides. Hence the trust deficit is wide.
The Chinese statement lacks specificity that strengthens suspicion about its ulterior motive. Second, where these troops and heavy guns would be kept after withdrawal by China? if they are kept nearby then China could quietly bring them back after sometime to strengthen its positions. Third, the verification of withdrawal is problematic. China could be creating an optical illusion of withdrawal. China has to dismantle all the structures between Finger 4 and Finger 8. This would have to be ensured. Fourth, the issue of de-escalation of the opposing military outposts in the strategic Depsang plains, where the Chinese soldiers are blocking the Indian troops from going to the traditional points since April 2020 are yet to be discussed. In addition, there are other friction point like Gogra Post, Hot Spring area and Galwan Valley. These are imponderables.
The Chinese objective in creating this situation was obviously to change the facts on the ground as it did in the South China Sea. The violence was engineered to stabilise the forward positions. The moot question is then why China agreed to withdraw after 10 months of standoff. While there are no easy answers, China came under the increasing pressure of the changed geo-political situation. China had miscalculated the determination and resolve of India to counter the Chinese actions.
China had not expected that India would not merely confine to managing border but would attack the Chinese economic interest in India and align itself closely with its Quad partners. India upped the ante by taking three steps- military, economic and diplomatic. India occupied heights in the south Pangong and banning 200 Chinese apps as also developing closer ties with other countries. India’s joining of UNSC as a non-Permanent Member provides greater space for diplomatic moves. China realised that India was not backing down and the standoff could last much longer than they had calculated.
The larger question is whether China has permanently given up its expansionist designs or this is only a temporary approach in view of unexpected resistance from India against its expansionist activities. The assessment is that it is the latter in view of changed environment and its need to project its peaceful rise at the centenary celebration of CCP in July.
While it appears that the present crisis would be over, India needs to watch carefully the Chinese moves in future. It aims at making advances stealthily taking advantage of differing perceptions of the LAC. Eastern Ladakh would remain in focus of China, which it considers necessary to protect CPEC, G-219 Highway and Karakorum Pass. Given the track of record of China to break agreements, the possibility of China going through this agreement temporarily and later follow it up with a military action cannot be ruled out. Its aggressive actions at the LAC are supplemented with the military coercion, increased footprints and investments in India’s neighbourhood to restrict India’s strategic space and leadership role. In nut-shell, China-India relations have moved from strategic competition to strategic rivalry.
Hence, India should continue to create military, economic and diplomatic leverages. Besides disengagement and de-escalation, India’s efforts should be to get the LAC demarcated at the earliest. The delay is only in the interest of China. The current environment is favourable to expedite the process. In addition, a strategic approach based on active defence and pre-emption along the LAC should be pursued to protect our territory. This entails identifying the vulnerable spots and keep its forces ready for pre-emptive operations as also effective proactive diplomatic steps to keep China under pressure.
An improved surveillance system based on advanced technology to get early warning and improved intelligence system would be imperative. Simultaneously, India has to take up effectively the issues of Tibet, Hong Kong, and Uyghur Muslims at various international forums.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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