A synchronised phased disengagement has begun simultaneously on the north and south bank of Pangong Tso in eastern Ladakh. As per my assessment, gradual disengagement between India and China all along the standoff areas has been on since the ninth round of Corps Commander-level talks held on 24 January. This is the beginning of an all-encompassing agreement, which will be finalised in the next few months to diffuse the crisis in eastern Ladakh and mend the fractured relationship between the two nations.
In fact, I had reached the same conclusion, before the news of the disengagement broke, by analysing the strategic and the military situation.
I will stick my neck out to give the prognosis on the contours of the likely agreement. In a nutshell, India has accepted the Chinese 1959 Claim Line as the new LAC in all areas except Demchok-Fukche area in the Indus Valley, possibly with buffer zones and no deployment/patrolling/infrastructure development in southern half of Depsang Plain, north of Pangong Tso and some other areas of differing perceptions. The 1959 Claim Line is already well-demarcated and so are the buffer zones that lie between it and the existing LAC. This agreement in due course may lead to China giving up all other claims in Central Sector and northeast with minor adjustments. Ironically the final shape of such an agreement may look like a mirror image of the proposal of Zhou Enlai made in November 1959.
In ten weeks, by end of April, the thaw will take place in the high Himalayas and the terrain and weather will become conducive for military operations. It would also mark one year of the ongoing crisis in eastern Ladakh that began with China preemptively seizing/controlling 800-1,000 square km of our territory up to its 1959 Claim Line in Depsang Plains and north of Pangong Tso, apart from minor intrusions, vacated by the Chinese in July across this line in Galwan Valley and Hot Springs-Gogra-Kongka La. In doing so, China prevented us from patrolling up to the LAC and developing border infrastructure in these critical areas, and gained a strategic advantage — in event of a limited war — to seize large tracts of our territory.
India responded with a massive build-up to prevent further ingress. The volatile situation led to the Galwan Valley skirmish — fought with ‘medieval weaponry’ on the night of 15-16 June in which 20 of ours and an unspecified number of People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) soldiers were killed in action. In end August, India surprised the PLA by seizing the dominant Kailash Range, not occupied since 1962, in Chushul Sector to gain a strategic advantage in event of an escalation. Since then, the rival forces have remained deployed, at some places in eyeball contact, despite the harsh winter.
Military and diplomatic engagement have made no headway. Virtual ministerial-level engagements took place once between the defence ministers and twice between the foreign ministers, apart from a number of meetings at the joint secretary-level as part of the Joint Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs. Nine rounds of military talks, primarily focused on disengagement and de-escalation and not conflict resolution per se, have taken place. The result is best expressed in the words of External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar: “So, military commanders have held nine rounds of meetings so far. We believe some progress has been made, but it is not, in a kind of situation where there is a visible expression of that on the ground.” The situation could best be described as a volatile impasse.
What now? Are we going to see an escalation or a limited war? Or can a face-saving conflict resolution for both parties to claim victory be negotiated to mend the fractured relationship?
Probability of a China-initiated limited war
Neither side seems to prefer a war, though for different reasons. Nothing proves this point more than the fact that despite face-to-face deployment, there have been no casualties since the Galwan Valley incident in June 2020. The last exchange of fire took place in early September, after India secured the Kailash Range. Yet, the situation remains volatile, proved by a non-firearm skirmish at Naku La on 20 January 2021.
China has no incentive for war. Its political aim of imposing its hegemony over India by undermining its international/regional status, securing the 1959 Claim Line to gain a strategic advantage, and preventing development of border infrastructure in critical areas that threaten Aksai Chin/other usurped territory, has been achieved. China has proved to the world that it has imposed its will on India, which has been unable to militarily clear the intrusions.
However, China is not in a position to declare victory and leave, because the Indian armed forces, in quick time, will restore status quo ante April 2020. To impose peace on its terms, the Chinese would have to wage a limited war. But Beijing is wary of a war lest the untested PLA suffers a setback. Even if India forces a stalemate, it would be defeat for a superior power.
Simply put, China will not initiate a limited war but in response to an Indian military initiative, it will aim to impose a decisive defeat in a limited war below the nuclear threshold. In fact, it has been preparing for such an eventuality by developing its military infrastructure in Tibet on a massive scale. Thus the probability of a limited war initiated by China is very low. It will try to negotiate from a position of strength so that it can retain the gains made without too many concessions.
Probability of a limited war initiated by India
India was strategically and tactically surprised, and suffered a major setback by losing unoccupied territory in Depsang Plains and north of Pangong Tso. India’s image as an emerging major power was severely dented. It recovered some of the lost prestige when Kailash Range was secured in end August 2020. China continues to be in occupation of 800-1,000 square km of Indian territory. Apart from this, China also occupies 38,000 sq km of Indian territory seized up to 1962.
India’s political aim is to restore status quo ante April 2020 and demarcate the LAC. Thus India has all the incentive to initiate a limited war. However, it does not have the military capability to decisively defeat China. Politically, a military defeat/setback would be catastrophic. I have no hesitation to conclude that the probability of an India-initiated limited war is also very low. However, a prolonged standoff can strengthen its hand at the negotiating table because China will be forced to continue its deployment and cannot declare victory.
Options for conflict resolution
Keeping the above in view, I visualise two scenarios. First, a continuous optimum deployment like the Line of Control, all along the LAC and in areas where China has intruded, along the forward line of Indian troops — to prolong the stalemate and tire China out. Second, a diplomatic solution with buffer zones in intrusion areas where neither side will deploy/patrol/develop infrastructure along with a mutually accepted demarcation of the LAC and the buffer zones.
The first scenario will force deployment of at least two divisions plus one as immediate reserve by both sides in extremely hostile terrain and cold climate of Eastern Ladakh. If the entire LAC becomes volatile, then another 6-7 divisions would be permanently deployed. We have the experience of Siachen, and China of fighting on the Siberian front. How peace is then maintained will depend on the future LAC management agreements.
The major gain for India will be that China will not be able to declare victory and a stalemate of this nature is loss of face, and a defeat for a superior power. India’s lost prestige would be restored. It will also lead to de facto demarcation of the LAC albeit along the 1959 Claim Line, except in Demchok area. Domestically, it can be sold as a victory. However, the burden on the defence budget would be prohibitive, and experience shows that such a deployment invariably leads to frequent firefights and incidents that can trigger an escalation. The probability of this option being exercised is very low. However, it is a pragmatic option for Eastern Ladakh until an acceptable conflict resolution can take place.
It appears that both India and China are gradually moving towards the second option. China as the stronger power cannot declare victory and a prolonged stalemate will soon begin to look like defeat. Rather than force the 1959 Claim Line down India’s throat, the declaration of Depsang Plains and north of Pangong Tso intrusion areas as no deployment/patrolling/infrastructure development “buffer zones” will enable the Chinese to save face and declare ‘victory’.
India has to swallow the bitter pill and accept that past agreements are passé, and the new reality must be faced squarely. In my view, a demarcated 1959 Claim Line (except in Demchok area), with buffer zones in Depsang Plains and north of Pangong Tso is a very pragmatic solution. Giving up our dominant deployment along the Kailash Range can be compensated by extending the agreement to include a 20 kilometre demilitarised zone on either side of the LAC. Goes without saying that precautions would have to be taken to cater for breach of trust common in such situations.
Now read my prognosis again in light of the above analysis. The visualised solution is still a long way off and may appear to be a “sell-out”. But as a weaker power lacking the military capability to challenge China, it is a strategic compulsion to strive for an agreement that ensures peace on our northern borders.
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.