After the smooth completion of the disengagement of forces in the north and south banks of Pangong Lake in Eastern Ladakh, India and China have begun discussions on the next phase of disengagement. The disengagement took nine days, and by agreement, was monitored and verified at each step. There should be relief on both sides that it was incident free. After troops and equipment began to be withdrawn from their eyeball-to-eyeball positions last week, China acknowledged losing five soldiers during last July’s disengagement process at Galwan, in which 20 Indian soldiers including the unit commander were killed. An official statement of the 10th round of military commanders — held on Saturday as scheduled, 48 hours after the completion of the first phase — is awaited, but reportedly the Indian side’s focus was to push for a Chinese withdrawal from other friction points, namely patrolling points in Depsang and at Gogra and Hot Springs. Reportedly, the Special Representatives of the two sides — National Security Adviser A K Doval and Foreign Minister Wang Yi — will also meet soon.
Questions persist about why India had to give up occupation of the heights on Kailash Range on the south bank of the lake, on the Indian side of the claim line, in exchange for China’s withdrawal from an area into which it had ingressed last year on the north bank. In an interview to this newspaper, Lt Gen Y K Joshi said that the occupation of the Kailash Range heights was not an “advantage in perpetuity”, and that vacating them was necessary as both sides had to return to status quo ante. That begs the question to which there is as yet no convincing answer: What advantage does India have to negotiate a Chinese withdrawal from the remaining friction points?
China’s aggression last April in that region was unexpected. Why the PLA decided to push into Indian territory at that precise time last year during the COVID-19 crisis, and why it has agreed to pull back now, when the harshest part of the Ladakh winter is already over, are the other mysteries of this stand-off. Common sense says India and China should be able to move on repairing their bilateral relations on the basis of the disengagement process. But it may not be that easy, considering that the PLA so easily abandoned a full decade of diplomatic slog on “peace and tranquility” agreements, taking the two sides to the “brink of war” as Gen Joshi revealed, and pushing trust levels back by decades. India cannot afford to let down its guard.