As per media reports, most of them based on sources, the disengagement of troops, from the face-off points in the Galwan River Valley and Hot Springs-Gogra commenced on Sunday and is near completion . At both these places, the troops have disengaged and pulled back by 1.5 km, creating a “buffer zone” of 3-4 km. The buffer zones may vary in size depending on the original distance between the troops at the face-off points.
However, the status quo seems to prevail in the north of Pangong Tso, with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) firmly in control of the area between Finger 4 and Finger 8. With this disengagement, the PLA troops in the Galwan River and Hot Springs-Gogra area have willy-nilly vacated the intrusions across the Line of Actual Control (LAC), but we have also pulled back in our own territory. The creation of buffer zones implies that neither side will deploy troops or patrol in these areas.
It is obvious that resolving the situation through military engagement and diplomacy will be a long haul, and possibly, will require another summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping. However, that will be contingent upon the compromises both sides are prepared to make with respect to their short-term political aims. Two strong leaders with absolute backing of their people, Modi and Xi cannot afford to lose face. It has to be a win-win situation for both the countries, and their leaders. Both understand that if they do not meet halfway, then a limited war is inevitable, which neither side wants.
What led to the disengagement?
A series of talks between military commanders up to the rank of Major General were held in May, but no agreement was reached. The Corps Commander-level talks held on 6 June paved the way for initial disengagement. However, the unarmed violent clash of 15-16 June, in which, 20 Indian and an unknown number of PLA soldiers were killed, scuttled the process of easing tensions.
This violent incident was a wake-up call for both sides to disengage from “eye ball contact” without prejudice to their claims or troop deployment, to avoid similar incidents in future. The foreign ministers of India and China spoke via video call to break the ice on 17 June. This was followed by a video conference under Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China border affairs on 24 June at the Joint Secretary-level. On 22 June and 30 June, marathon meetings were held between Lt Gen Harinder Singh, 14 Corps Commander and his counterpart, Maj. Gen. Liu Lin, commander of the South Xinjiang Military District. These talks worked out the modalities of the disengagement process.
PM Modi’s strong statement on 3 July at Nimu in Ladakh spelt out India’s resolve to stand-up to China to safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity. However, Modi kept the door open for diplomatic engagement. The Special Representatives of India and China on the Boundary Question—India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and China’s State Councillor and Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi, had a telephone conversation on 5 July 2020. The two had a frank and in-depth exchange of views on the recent developments in the Western Sector of the India-China border areas to find a diplomatic solution.
Long haul towards deescalation
What has been achieved at the face-off points is diffusion of the situation and creation of buffer zones to avoid clashes. However, no headway has been made with respect to the 8 km-deep PLA intrusion, usurping 40 square kilometres of Indian territory to the north of Pangong Tso, in the fingers area, a token adjustment seems to have been made by the PLA specifically in area of Finger 4 to avoid close contact between the two forces. China has also given no indication of giving up its claim on the Galwan River valley. Additional forces mobilised by both sides continue to remain deployed in their concentration areas to pursue their respective political and military aims.
The press releases of India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), signal the stark differences in the way both countries see the situation.
The press release of the MEA is accommodative and conciliatory: “ …two sides should not allow differences to become disputes. Therefore, they agreed that it was necessary to ensure at the earliest complete disengagement of the troops along the LAC and de-escalation from India-China border areas for full restoration of peace and tranquillity. …. They re-affirmed that both sides should strictly respect and observe the line of actual control and should not take any unilateral action to alter the status quo and work together to avoid any incident in the future that could disturb peace and tranquillity in border areas.”
China’s MFA press release is belligerent and assertive: “The right and wrong of what recently happened at the Galwan Valley in the western sector of the China-India boundary is very clear. China will continue firmly safeguarding our territorial sovereignty as well as peace and tranquility in the border areas.” It is a clear signal that China has not given up its claims in the Galwan River or in the north of Pangong Tso.
While India also highlighted the need for de-escalation of forces in the border areas, China’s MFA statement focussed only on disengagement of the frontline troops: “both sides welcomed the progress achieved in the recent military and diplomatic meetings, agreed to stay in dialogue and consultation, and stressed the importance to promptly act on the consensus reached in the commander-level talks between Chinese and Indian border troops, and complete disengagement of the front-line troops as soon as possible.”
Compromising for a lasting solution
What are these compromises that India and China can make with respect to their political aims to bring about lasting peace?
The short-term political aim of China is to prevent India from developing its border infrastructure in areas that threaten Aksai Chin from west and south, that is the Daulat Beg Oldi sector and areas to the north of Pangong Tso, and Hot Springs-Gogra areas. India’s short term political aim is to restore status quo ante April 2020.
India and China are striving to create a win-win situation by formally demarcating the LAC with buffer zones in the disputed areas, in which, neither side will patrol, deploy troops or create any infrastructure. The LAC will be as per actual positions under respective control that existed at the time of the 1993 border agreement and not as per China’s 1959 claim line. This would imply creation of buffer zones of varying sizes in the Depsang Plains, Galwan River, north of Pangong Tso, Hot Springs-Gogra, Demchok and Chumar. A verification process for the buffer zones will also have to be formalised. Similar exercise will then be carried out in the central sector and in the northeast.
Given the national mood, this approach is likely to be very unpopular. However, the differential in military capabilities and the apprehension/consequences of a possible setback in a limited war, have forced PM Modi to bite the bullet. He is confident that with his charisma and popularity, he will be able to sell this idea to the nation. Denial and obfuscation with respect to the intrusions and loss of territory with full support of bulk of media and his jingoist supporters, fit into the pattern.
It is hoped that once the revised short-term political aims are achieved to create a win-win situation for both the countries, then sincere negotiations will begin to achieve the long-term goals.With rival forces poised for a limited war, Modi and Xi have to show statesmanship to arrive at a position from where both appear to be in control before their respective audiences, and this must happen by November before the winter chill freezes the great Himalayan game.
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.