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Did Jaishankar, Wang Yi really break the ice in Moscow? India can’t forget — winter is coming

While the Narendra Modi govt has shown its willingness to negotiate, will its domestic compulsions allow it to progress with talks towards logical conclusion?

File photo of External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi | PTI
File photo of External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi | PTI

Since the five-point India-China joint statement made in Moscow on 10 September after the foreign ministers’ meet between S. Jaishankar and Wang Yi, there has been no news of fresh action along the Line of Actual Control in the ongoing conflict. However, there have been important statements highlighting the seriousness of the situation in eastern Ladakh. After Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said in Parliament that China has mobilised troops and weapons on the LAC, and violated all bilateral agreements, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi hit back, saying that the government had misled the country on Chinese encroachment. The Minister of State for Home Affairs, Nityanand Rai made a bizarre statement in Parliament that there has been “no infiltration at the Indo-China Border in last six months”. Ironically, by default, he was correct because the Chinese have not infiltrated but intruded and captured our territory.

But that’s all happening in the political arena. What explains the lull along the LAC after 10 September? Is it the lull before the proverbial storm or the one being utilised by both countries to plan for a face-saver solution?

Time is at a premium because winter sets in by 30 November. While the disengagement process, when finalised, will take 7-10 days to implement, the de-escalation of additional troops inducted is likely to take nearly a month. This is more, in our case as both the roads to Ladakh close by 15 November. In case the peace process fails, then both sides may either have to settle for maintaining the volatile status quo or seek to make strategic or tactical gains before the winter sets in. It is pertinent to mention that in 1962, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) commenced its offensive on 18 October and announced a unilateral ceasefire and withdrawal on 19 November.

I analyse the operational situation along the LAC, implications of the five-point agreement, likely problems in the disengagement process and prognosis, based on my assessment.

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Situation along the LAC

Apart from the Galwan-style confrontation attempted by the PLA at Mukhpari on the intervening night of 7 and 8 September, in which, both India and China accused each other of firing warning shots, there also seems to have been a similar incident at the junction of Finger 3 and Finger 4 ridges, where allegedly 100-200 warning shots were fired by both sides. There has been no other belligerent action by either side along the frontline. Both sides remain poised for escalation at face-off points and also the reserves remain in a state of readiness to pursue strategic and tactical objectives.

The Google Map/Earth coverage north of Pangong Tso has been updated to 16 June, and shows that, even three months ago, the PLA had prepared elaborate defences of a permanent nature, indicating an intent of not vacating the area. However, there are also reports about our troops securing higher heights on Finger 4.

As per my revised assessment, on the Kailash Range, we have not secured Black Top and our troops are on the ridge line at Yellow Bump on our side of the LAC, which is 100 meters lower. In our zeal to not cross the LAC, we have lost an opportunity and forewent significant tactical advantage in relation to Spanggur Tso area. However, by securing Yellow Bump, we have denied the top-down approach to Gurung Hill. Also, we have not secured Helmet Top, losing the advantage of overlooking the PLA road from Moldo to the South Bank of Pangong Tso. This is surprising because this feature is on the LAC. However, we seem to have secured the equivalent height ridge extending to the south. Our position on Rechin La has been reinforced with tanks and Infantry Combat Vehicles — BMPs. My revised inputs notwithstanding, we are well entrenched on the Kailash Range, dominating the PLA in the Spanggur Tso area.

Status quo prevails in the Depsang and Hot Springs-Kugrang-Gogra area. There have been reports of the PLA laying optical fibre cable in the intrusion areas, which is another indication of its intent of permanent occupation.

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The five-point agreement

The joint statement released at the end of the foreign ministers meeting in Moscow reveals very little about the consensus/agreement that has actually been arrived at. Probably, more details will come out after further talks between the Special Representatives and through meetings of Working Mechanisms for Consultation and Coordination on India-China border affairs (WMCC) as mentioned in point four. However, there are few issues that emerge, giving the trend/agenda for future discussions.

The very first point in the five-point agreement — “both sides should take guidance from the series of consensus of the leaders on developing India-China relations, including not allowing differences to become disputes” — indicates that there have been fundamental differences in approach to the boundary dispute. In my view, these differences relate to perception of the LAC and change in the status of Ladakh with effect from 5 August 2019.

India considers the LAC to be based on the actual positions as held at the time of 1993 agreement. The Chinese consider the LAC to be as per the “the line up to which each side exercises actual control in the west” as on 7 November 1959 — the date of Chou Enlai’s letter to Jawaharlal Nehru. This (7 November 1959) was the first time the term ‘Line of Actual Control’ was used, though the coordinates of this line were given later in 1960. Also, the Chinese consider the creation of the Union Territory of Ladakh and its map, which includes Aksai Chin, as a fundamental violation of the consensus. As per the Chinese view, our development of the border infrastructure, beyond the 1959 claim line, was an intrusion into their territory and forced them to take counter-action.

In the above context, it is pertinent to highlight that in the joint statement, the term LAC has been replaced by “border areas” (point 2 and 3) and as per the Chinese, the 1959 claim line becomes the new reference point. This also indicates that status quo ante April 2020, which is also India’s political aim, is unlikely to come about. Hence, this finds no mention in the joint statement.

The immediate focus of the joint statement is disengagement (point 3), after which further talks will decide the bigger differences. While both sides agree to abide by the existing agreements and protocol on China-India boundary affairs (point 4), they also agree to the need for new Confidence Building Measures (point 5), implying that the former are inadequate to manage the differences.

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Disengagement process

The initial disengagement talks were based on the principle of equidistant pull-back by each side to create buffer zones of 3-4 km. Since the PLA intruded up to their 1959 claim line and across the 1993 LAC, as claimed by us, this meant further withdrawal into own territory that came under fire from the Opposition.

Now, with the term ‘border areas’ replacing the reference point of the LAC, the disengagement process will become more complex. The refusal of the PLA to pull back from the 1959 claim line further compounds the problem. Also, any disengagement from the Kailash Range will mean that we vacate the dominant positions we are holding.

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The four-and-a-half month long conflict along the LAC and the five-point agreement signed in Moscow has opened the way to settle the larger boundary dispute between India and China. We are exactly in the same situation as in 1959. The Chinese offer then was to settle the issue in Ladakh as per the 1959 claim line and recognition of the McMahon Line in the northeast. Through its actions since April 2020, the Chinese have already reached the 1959 claim line in Depsang and north of Pangong Tso. The only other area left is Demchok. We are in no position to take back Aksai Chin or other areas lost to China in the foreseeable future. In my view, the Chinese have signalled their willingness to settle on the terms proposed by them in 1959.

While the government has shown its willingness to negotiate, will its domestic compulsions allow it to progress with the negotiations towards logical conclusion? In the interim, the best what we can hope for is to declare the entire area between the 1993 LAC and the 1959 claim line as an extended buffer zone or ‘zone of actual control’ as Chinese scholar Qian Feng defines it,  where no troops will be deployed or defences/border infrastructure created. This can be a face saving solution for both sides. If negotiations fail then the threat of a limited war will continue to loom large over us.

Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.