The marathon 12-hour meeting between Corps Commander 14 Corps of India and Commander of South Xinjiang Military Region of China took place at Chushul in Eastern Ladakh on 30 June 2020. The meeting, third in past one month, was to focus on disengagement of troops from various stand-off points in Eastern Ladakh, withdrawal of the PLA troops to the pre-April 2020 positions, and examine modalities to avoid such recurrence as per the rules laid down in various agreements between China and India.
Chinese mouthpiece The Global Times carried a report on 1 July claiming that China and India had agreed to disengage their frontline border troops in batches and take effective measures to ease the situation. Routine platitudes apart, the report referred to make use of the existing border mechanisms, abide by agreements, respect historical facts and accommodate each other’s core concerns. It also said that India should meet China halfway, strictly restrain the actions of frontline troops and refrain from taking radical moves and risks.
China’s obfuscation of facts
It is obvious that the entire schema of the Chinese has an underlining belligerence, an overt and covert agenda, and a calculated obfuscation of facts.
Pangong Tso is a case in point. That India’s LAC extends till Finger 8 is well known to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)—the patrols of both sides have had hundreds of face-offs over the last 20 years. To slyly occupy Finger 4 and 5 is absolutely belligerent. To claim territory up to the Galwan estuary, an area where the PLA has never ever ventured, is most inexplicable. The Bottleneck in Depsang had witnessed a major face-off between the two forces in April 2013. To repeat it, is cantankerous behaviour. The deadly assault on Indian troops on 15 June 2020 is unfathomable.
In the backdrop of such confrontational attitude and aggression of the PLA, to ask Indian troops to abide by border agreements challenges basic intelligence, like the pot calling the kettle black. PLA troops have for long been showing disregard for these agreements, protocols and the Confidence Building Measures (CBMs), which culminated in the events of May and June 2020. The refrain of ‘meeting half-way’ is also inexplicable. These are issues of territorial integrity, of national pride. On matters of sovereign territory, there can be no half way? That is, till formal exercise is undertaken to negotiate demarcation and delineation of the LAC.
China going back to history
The biggest anxiety emanates from the reference to respecting historical facts. It is well understood that the history is the cause of the entire imbroglio between the two neighbours. The consternation is caused by the Ardagh–Johnson and the Macartney–MacDonald lines of the 19th Century or the ‘07 Nov 1959 Line’ referred to in the letter of then Chinese Prime Minister Chou-en-lai to Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The mention of respect to historical facts is a deliberate attempt by the Chinese to push the subject away to further inertia. The border negotiations that have ensued since 1981 have attempted to delve into history, only to be offhandedly and brusquely pushed aside by Beijing. The disdain in handling and obfuscation of history is the basic Chinese wont—seen from the South China Sea to Senkaku Islands.
The LAC events seem to portray a gloomy picture of rapprochement. Though an official statement from the government is yet to be released, news reports indicate a resumption of disengagement in Galwan, Hot Springs, as part of an expeditious, phased and step-wise de-escalation involving a verifiable pull-back of 2.5 to 3 km from the points of standoff. There have also been reports of the presence of PLA divisions along the Western Highway, the G219 Chinese National Highway. The Indian armed forces are already prophylactically postured in Eastern Ladakh.
While the PLA being in the vicinity does not necessarily indicate the possibility of a full-blown conventional war, a long haul of the current imbroglio is looming. To that end, three recommendations are proposed.
First, a short, swift, focussed aggression by the PLA, with an express aim to pursue a geo-political agenda, in a sub-sector could happen. It is an optimal necessity for India to ensure that such a surprise does not occur, which mandates an effective ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance). If an aggression does happen, it should receive the right reception, as planned for. An offensive content must form part and parcel of the defensive plans.
Second, in the current posturing, the border management in Eastern Ladakh needs to be extended, to safeguard other disputed areas, lest they are surreptitiously occupied too. We must not relax the domination of Eastern Ladakh, albeit it should be with adequate planning to protect in the eventuality of a physical face-off, if it happens. A foot on the ground, and fire and move, are time-tested tactics. Off-setting the incursion by identical actions can yet be undertaken, contingent on the discussions/commitments in the Border Personnel Meetings (BPMs).
Third, assertiveness by the Western neighbour in Western Ladakh or along the Line of Control (LOC), is likely, and must be forcefully put down, as per plans.
If the current situation extends into the winter, logistical planning and catering is absolutely essential.
Talks must not wear us down
The 1 July 2020 report in The Global Times has clear disturbing indicators, and has conveniently ascribed untrue motivations against the Indian Army. It had been hoped that the marathon sessions between military negotiators would have brought happy tidings. It is likely that these negotiations would continue at Chushul/ Moldo, without an end in sight, or any significant forward movement. These meetings are also important in their own right, but must not wear us down, as would be the aim of the PLA. Not allowing the troops on the ground to be lulled in futile hope will be essential. Though it might turn out to be unnecessary, being prepared for the worst is obligatory.
Lt Gen Rakesh Sharma (retd) is a former Corps Commander of 14 Corps at Ladakh. Views are personal.