After nine months of being on the verge of a war in eastern Ladakh, mutual disengagement by Indian and Chinese forces from north and south bank of Pangong Tso was completed with clockwork military precision duly between 10-19 February and the whole process was recorded in video for posterity.
It led defence analysts to assess that it was the first phase of a likely comprehensive agreement between India and China to restore status quo ante April 2020 at the Line of Actual Control (LAC). It was also hoped that the agreement may pave the way for demarcation of the border along China’s 1959 Claim Line and the LAC as perceived/controlled/patrolled by India with buffer zones in the areas of differing perceptions.
A stand-alone agreement
A month later, it seems that the much-acclaimed first step was only a stand-alone agreement to enable both China and India to claim victory with divergent interpretation of the buffer zone between Finger 4 and Finger 8. The only leverage — securing of Kailash Range on night 29-30 August 2020 — we created in Eastern Ladakh was given up for this stand-alone agreement. Even the disengaged troops remain within striking distance of each other. No progress has been made with respect to disengagement from Depsang Plains, Hot Springs-Gogra, and Demchok at the 10th Corps Commander-level meeting held on 20 February. Troops remain in a face-off situation in these areas.
The 21st meeting of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs (WMCC) was held on 12 March and it reiterated the commitment of both sides to continue negotiations for disengagement from remaining areas. It was also agreed that the 11th Corps Commander-level meeting would be scheduled soon.
Impasse in further disengagement
Notwithstanding the disengagement from north and south bank of Pangong Tso, troops from both sides continue to remain deployed to cater for any escalation with the onset of the campaigning season beginning at the end of April. It is my assessment that during the Corps Commander-level talks held on 20 February, the Chinese refused to discuss the disengagement in Depsang and south of Demchok. The Chinese stand is categoric that they are deployed in their “sovereign territory” as per the 1959 Claim Line and hence there is no question of any compromise. The implication is that they are not even amenable to the idea of a buffer zone in these areas.
It is well known that due to its terrain configuration, the Depsang Plains are defensively untenable. There is no scope whatsoever for India to gain any tactical advantage. Thus, the acceptance of the 1959 Claim Line is a fait accompli.
The situation in Demchok is no different. China has secured the heights south of Demchok in Charding-Ninglung Nala area to ward off a threat to Ngari, 60 km east of LAC, through which the Tibet-Xinjiang highway passes. China had captured the heights to the north of Demchok in 1962. For the time being, China is ignoring the 1959 Claim Line, which includes the area up to Fukche, 30 km to west in the Indus Valley. However, it is unlikely to make any compromise with respect to the intrusion south of Demchok.
It has been argued by government sources that both Depsang and Demchok are older disputed areas inherited by the current administration. By that token, the entire boundary dispute dates back to the 1950s. The fact is that these areas were patrolled by the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) until April 2020.
In Hot Springs-Gogra, the 1959 Claim Line and the LAC coincide. However, the Chinese are alarmed by India developing roads along Kugrang River and Chunglung Nala from where approaches lead north to upper reaches of the Galwan River. The Chinese intrusion is probably up to the junction of Kugrang River-Chunglung Nala. Thus, we are denied access to nearly 30-35 km of the Kugrang River valley to the north-west. While China agrees with the alignment of the LAC, it still wants a buffer zone to prevent development of infrastructure, which poses a threat to the Galwan River valley.
Simultaneously, China has undertaken minor intrusions north and east of Gogra post. We have no scope for any counter action to gain leverage due to the 100-km-long tenuous road linked to Lukung. In the event of any escalation, the entire Chang Chenmo valley becomes defensively untenable. In my view, a buffer zone in the entire area controlled by us until April 2020 in the Kugrang River valley is inevitable if the situation has to be diffused.
Going back to ‘business as usual’?
The last month also saw a number of events that impact India-China relations. China is back as India’s number one trading partner for 2020. The Narendra Modi government is set to clear Chinese FDI projects worth $2 billion in India.
A virtual Quad summit was held by the leaders of the US, India, Japan and Australia on 12 March. The joint statement issued by the White House, and also published as an oped in The Washington Post, is indicative of a broad-based grouping for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. China, though unnamed, was clearly the focus, but it was also indicative of the limitations of the Quad given each member’s complex individual relationship with China.
The Chinese People’s Conference formally approved mega hydro projects on lower reaches of Yarlung Zangbo River (Brahmaputra) and $30 billion infrastructure projects in Tibet, several of them close to our Himalayan borders.
Foreign ministers of China and India — Wang Yi and S. Jaishankar — publicly commented on future relations. Yi said on 7 March, “The boundary dispute, an issue left from history, is not the whole story of the China-India relationship. It is important that the two sides manage the dispute properly and at the same time, expand and enhance cooperation to create enabling conditions for the settlement of the issue.” Jaishankar responded, “Now, obviously, when a relationship is doing well, we would respond positively. So, if you extend your hand, I’m going to extend my hand too. But if you point a gun at me, I’ll point a gun at you. I mean that’s reasonable, that’s logical.”
It seems we are returning to business as usual — a love-hate relationship. China will continue to leverage the border dispute while exploiting India economically. India will cooperate economically while contesting the Chinese designs along the LAC. Both sides have learnt their lessons. China cannot militarily make India capitulate short of war, which, with uncertain outcomes, is best avoidable. The lesson for India is that it cannot be caught napping on the LAC to facilitate Chinese coercion while it bides its time to narrow the gap in comprehensive national power, particularly in respect to economic and military components. This implies permanently manning the LAC by deploying additional troops.
Prognosis for Eastern Ladakh
I foresee India accepting a buffer zone in the Kugrang River valley in Hot Springs-Gogra Sector. This will prevent our patrolling, deployment and infrastructure in the 35-km-long Kugrang River valley. We will accept the 1959 Claim Line in Depsang Plains and live with the intrusion south of Demchok. In my view, a small price to pay for diffusing a very unfavourable military situation.
I visualise no problem for the National Democratic Alliance government with respect to domestic politics due to lack of terrain knowledge, including among the defence analysts, a cooperative media and the immense popularity of Prime Minister Modi. The rest will be taken care of by bluff, bluster, obfuscation and “anti-national” tagging of naysayers.
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.