India and China recently held the 16th round of Corps Commanders level talks after considerable diplomatic activity. The event was held on the Indian side of the Chushul-Moldo meeting point and was intended to take forward the disengagement process in Depsang Plains, Patrolling Point 15 and south of Demchok.
The diplomatic activity began with the visit of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Delhi followed by his meeting with his Indian counterpart on the sidelines of the G-20 foreign ministers’ meeting in Bali, had raised hopes of a positive outcome. But the sugar coating of diplomatic language aside, the irreconcilable differences were apparent. China wants to maintain the status quo on the border, while India insists on status quo ante April 2020 as a pre-condition for normalisation of the relationship.
The hardening of respective positions was exhibited more tangibly in form of military exercises in the vicinity of the borders, provocative aerial activity, development of border infrastructure, high-profile visits to border states and a discernible change in India’s Tibet policy. Even the flourishing China-India trade was not spared, with India putting Chinese companies under scrutiny for tax evasion and money laundering.
Keeping the above in view, the failure to make any progress in the talks was ordained. The joint statement shrouded in diplomatic language indicates that the military talks have reached a dead end. In fact, there has been no progress since 31 July 2021, when during the 12th round of talks token disengagement took place in Gogra albeit with a buffer zone entirely on our side of the LAC between Patrolling Point (PP) 17 and PP 17A.
I examine the rival strategies, the operational situation prevailing on the borders and the way forward to manage the borders.
In Eastern Ladakh, the 1959 Claim Line is central to China’s strategy. It’s a marvel of terrain evaluation and cartography, that is advantageous to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and makes large swaths of Indian territory untenable in war.
China had secured this line in 1962 before unilaterally withdrawing 20km behind it. After 1962, India gradually began patrolling up to the 1959 Claim Line and in some areas—Depsang Plains ( PPs 10, 11, 12 and 13) and North of Pangong Tso from Finger 4 to Finger 8—east of this line, and had physically secured the area from Fukche to Demchok as it had a number of villages. As per India, the LAC runs along the areas that were physically held or patrolled at the time of signing the 1993 Border Agreement. As per China, it runs along the 1959 Claim Line.
This was the tactical casus belli for China’s intrusions in April-May 2020. At the strategic level, it wanted to reassert its hegemony in light of the perceived Indo-US nexus in the Indo-Pacific, abrogation of Article 370 and aggressive political statements to regain Aksai Chin and other territories seized by China. Militarily Beijing’s intent was to secure the 1959 claim line in areas where it perceived India was patrolling beyond it, and deny any further development of border infrastructure in its vicinity.
China achieved its aim with respect to the 1959 Claim Line with relative ease through a preemptive manoeuvre in late April and early May 2020. In fact, in the Galwan River, PP 15 and PP 17A, the PLA came across the line to gain a tactical advantage. However, India’s massive deployment to contain the PLA and brinkmanship denied it an absolute victory.
China had no intention to withdraw from its intrusion areas secured without firing a shot. However, the volatile situation after the gory Galwan River clash on the night of 15/16 June 2020, led to a mutual withdrawal and creation of a buffer zone of 3 km, mostly on our side of the LAC. India’s brilliant riposte to secure the Kailash Range on the night of 29/30 August in the Chushul Sector, created a military embarrassment for the PLA. This manoeuvre forced China to compromise on a standalone agreement for disengagement from the north and south bank of Pangong Tso in February 2021 with a buffer zone of 8 km on our side of the LAC from Finger 3 to Finger 8 and an equidistant buffer zone on the Kailash Range.
On 31 July 2021, China agreed to withdraw from its 3-4 km long intrusion across the 1959 Claim Line in the Changlung Nala in Chang Chenmo Sector after forcing a buffer zone between PP 17 and 17 A. In any case, it enjoys terrain advantage and can re-secure this area at will. However, it refused to withdraw from a similar intrusion at PP 15—Jianan Pass—as India refused to concede a 30 km long and 4-5 Km wide buffer zone in the Kugrang River.
China wants to maintain status quo, put the border issue on the back burner and expects India to normalise the relationship. This has been explicitly stated by its foreign minister in all his meetings with his Indian counterpart. President Xi Jinping’s Xinjiang visit days before the 16th round of talks, conferring with the military brass of the Western Theatre Command and Xinjiang Military District, and honouring the PLA’s ‘Galwan Hero’, only proves the point. Hours after the talks, China released a video of attack helicopters carrying out an exercise over the Pangong Tso lake.
Recovering from the loss of strategic and tactical surprise, India’s strategy has been to deploy a large number of troops to contain the Chinese intrusions, engage in brinkmanship along the LAC to prevent China from claiming an outright psychological victory and endeavour to restore status quo ante April-May 2020 through diplomatic/military talks. Its counter manoeuvre on the Kailash range forced a standalone agreement making China compromise its position with respect to the 1959 Claim Line on the north bank of Pangong Tso.
Given China’s rigid stand on the 1959 Claim Line, India can now restore the status quo ante only with the use of force leading to a limited war. However, India’s deployment on the LAC has put China on tenterhooks forcing it to maintain a similar posture.
In order to exert pressure on China and substantiate that peace on the borders is a prerequisite for normalising relations, India has subtly reviewed its Tibet policy. Apart from the prime minister’s much publicised birthday greetings, the Dalai Lama has been allowed a month-long visit to Ladakh days before the military talks. The Dalai Lama used the occasion to reiterate that he seeks autonomy and not independence for Tibet. He went a step ahead to sermonise the two most populous nations of the world on the use of force.
Interestingly, a Bill has been introduced in the US Congress: ‘Promoting a Resolution to the Tibet-China Conflict Act’, which questions China’s illegal annexation of Tibet. India, meanwhile, has also announced that it will hold preparatory meetings for the G 20 summit in Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh.
The way forward
The situation prevailing in Eastern Ladakh can best be described as a ‘strategic stalemate’. Uncertainty of outcome and anticipated heavy casualties in a limited war, and the nuclear backdrop are deterrents for both. The volatility of the situation has reduced to a great extent due to diplomatic/military talks and the establishment of hotlines. Apart from a small number of troops at PP 15, there are no troops in close proximity to each other.
The number of troops has reduced considerably. As per my assessment, both sides are maintaining a force of approximately two divisions, just enough to prevent each other from springing a surprise. There is limited physical deployment and most troops are in camps in the vicinity of operational locations. Reserves for major offensive operations have reverted to permanent locations.
The military talks have run their course. The choice before the two nations is to either live with the status quo or raise the level of engagement leading to a summit for an interim border agreement.
A possible solution is for India to accept the 1959 Claim Line with equidistant buffer zones in areas of disagreement except in the Indus Valley and for China to agree to demarcate the entire border as an interim agreement. Interestingly, this was the offer made by Prime Minister Zhou Enlai in his letter to Prime Minister Nehru dated 7 November 1959.
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. He tweets @rwac48. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)