After nine months of uncertainty in Ladakh, high levels of tension and every possibility of a breakout of armed exchanges on the Line of Actual Control (LAC), comes an announcement of disengagement by both China and India. In fact, the disengagement has already begun. Does this mean an end to the hostile environment in relations between the Asian giants? Or is it just another addition to the long list of landmark standoffs which include Nathula, Sumdorong Chu and Doklam where drawdown led to no conflict resolution, just postponement. What the disengagement will involve and what its terminal status will be is of much importance to the future of Sino-Indian relations. As more information is revealed on the terms and conditions of the disengagement, the approach and strategy we need to adopt will become progressively clearer.
The reasons why Xi Jinping decided to change course in April 2020 from his relationship with Prime Minister Narendra Modi that was coasting along positively will probably be a subject of frequent analysis for many years. However, a consensus did emerge that the dissonance was caused with China becoming increasingly wary of India’s rising strategic confidence in the wake of major strategic decisions taken by New Delhi since 2015. To caution India and force it to review its position, an exercise in coercion was felt necessary. The pandemic situation was considered appropriate for greater effect and to cause far greater concern in India and the world — it was strategic messaging then, just as it is strategic messaging now when there is agreement to disengage. China’s intent, considering the quantum of troops deployed, may have been to cause only border friction. The standoff could have continued into 2021 and beyond, except for the image beating that Xi Jinping and China took. This was, perhaps, perceived not very conducive in a world order where the inauguration of the Biden-Harris administration has raised possibilities of change. Without giving this factor too much credit, it may be appropriate to accept that the strategic thinking emerging since Joe Biden won the US presidency is more conducive to cooperation — it in no way evidences peace, just greater stabilisation. The decision to disengage in Ladakh is, therefore, a larger strategic international message than just a bilateral one.
It would not be fair to take away credit from the Indian government for the developments. The level of success on ground and in diplomacy will, of course, be contingent upon how the disengagement process pans. The decision to engage in nine rounds of military talks, later suitably bolstered by presence of diplomats, was a brave one which placed much trust in the ability of senior Indian military commanders to bring the right level of communication and seriousness of intent to the table. It is also known that the government had directed the Army to seek and create a quid pro quo situation to obtain an operational-tactical advantage, which could balance the then existing disadvantage and lend weight to the country’s stand in the talks. The translation of that intent of the government was masterfully done through the action on the night of August 29-30, 2020 at the Kailash heights — without stepping across the LAC, yet achieving domination over the Moldo Garrison and the Spanggur Lake complex. I do strongly believe and did say it several times during the last few months that the Indian decision to limit rhetoric only facilitated positivity in the talks. The criticism against Prime Minister Narendra Modi for not naming or shaming China for having breached the trust between him and Xi Jinping was unjustified. The actions in the economic and trade domain were correct and adequately communicated India’s concern in the prevailing environment. By maintaining decorum at the highest levels of government, India actually prevented China from going overboard in the use of its media warfare doctrine, thereby maintaining equanimity and leaving a window open for constant engagement.
The proof of the worth of the current decision will only be felt once the process gets under way in earnest. It needs to be remembered that the Galwan incident happened within 10 days of the last such disengagement. The move back of armoured and infantry combat vehicles is the easiest part of the deal. The test begins once infantry troops in the rear start to fall back, leaving very few reserves up front. Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities have to be activated for credible verification. A certain trust has to be established between frontline commanders of either side with liaison and communication.
A repeat of what happened at Galwan will be unacceptable and the arrangements to obviate such a possibility have to be foolproof. The risk that exists even during such disengagement was amply displayed by the unfortunate turn of events in the Galwan incident.
The two inevitable and seemingly awkward questions that will arise now, or later, is the proposed status of the Depsang plateau and the Kailash heights. In the former, the PLA is currently denying us access to patrolling points at our perception of the LAC and the latter is the location of the advantage accruing to us due to domination over Moldo and Spanggur. At some stage, more detailed discussion will be required to determine the exact nature of “status quo ante”. India’s occupation of Kailash heights remains within our perception of the LAC. Its vacation, if at all, will need to be contingent upon rebuilding of trust and will probably be a culminating event. Chinese occupation at Depsang has been a problem since 2013 and needs to be linked to anything that finally transpires in the Pangong Tso area.
By no yardstick can the current situation be termed conflict resolution. It’s a good beginning to a seemingly intractable problem. The final solution lies in confidence building through verification and consultation, a complete absence of rhetoric and resumption of full and formal contact at the diplomatic level.
The writer, a former corps commander of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps, is chancellor, Central University of Kashmir