After weeks of incremental escalation in tensions and war hysteria amidst heavy military build-up by both sides in Sub-Sector North (SSN), north-east Ladakh, reports suggest that the troops of the Indian Army and China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have taken the first steps in the process of disengaging from their aggressive face-off postures in SSN.
Points From Where Chinese Troops Have Withdrawn
The disengagement involves both sides pulling back a few hundred metres from the face-off locations to create an equidistant buffer zone astride the LAC, and verifying each step before initiating the next phase of a process, which, as per India, should eventually restore the status quo ante on the LAC. Open source information indicates that:
- At Depsang, there has been no withdrawal as yet.
- At Patrol Point 14 and 15 (Galwan Valley), both sides have moved back 1.8 kms from the site of the 15 June clash; the PLA has dismantled its camp at that site and now both have just 30 soldiers each in that general area. This pull-back, and the “no patrolling by either side until commanders devise fresh mechanism to avoid repeat of 15 June incident” clause means that the buffer zone now stands extended to the Indian side of the LAC – and Indian troops cannot patrol up to PP-14 as hitherto fore, but would have to remain west of the Shyok River. If this condition persists, then status quo ante in this crucial area will not be restored. With the Galwan river in spate, its possible that this withdrawal by the PLA was expedient.
- Gogra Post and Hot Springs: The PLA has moved back most forces by about 1.5 kms.
- Pangong Tso: The PLA has moved back a bit from Finger-4, but not to the point where India has demanded.
- The disengagement involves both sides pulling back a few hundred metres from the face-off locations to create an equidistant buffer zone astride the LAC, and verifying each step before initiating the next phase of a process.
- Insofar as de-induction is concerned, there is unlikely to be any substantial Indian troop withdrawal from the area in the immediate months.
- One major reason for this is distrust of China and the PLA.
- We perhaps need to introspect whether what’s happened fits the Chinese strategy of ‘two steps forward, one step back’
Substantial Withdrawal Of Indian Troops Unlikely Right Now
Insofar as de-induction is concerned, there is unlikely to be any substantial Indian troop withdrawal from the area in the immediate months. There are two main reasons for this:
- distrust of China and the PLA.
- the tedious process of verification of every move by both sides, followed by the next steps. However, in case of a default, the process will freeze. Right now, there appears to be sparse progress at Depsang and Pangong Tso, given that the PLA has constructed infrastructure and deployed up to eight kms inside the LAC at Pangong Tso. Thus, restoration of Indian patrolling rights on the north banks of the Pangong Lake will be a critical test of the process.
What Led To India-China ‘Arrangement’?
What really led the Chinese to agree to this arrangement can only be conjectured. But we could look at three issues:
- China shares a border with more countries than any other nation, and since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, it has had border disputes with every neighbour. However, it resolved these with most including Myanmar (1960), Nepal (1961), North Korea (1962), Mongolia (1962), Pakistan (1963), Laos (1991), Vietnam (1999), Russia (1991-94). With some, the disputes were settled through ‘peaceful and concessionary diplomatic approaches based on mutual understanding’. Border disputes invariably involve ‘give-and-take’ – and in reaching its settlements, China usually received less than 50 percent of the land in dispute. With other countries (Russia, Vietnam), a resolution only occurred after armed conflict. However, with India, the border dispute stands exactly where it did when it first emerged over seventy years ago – and is a question which merits deep examination.
- Under normal circumstances, China’s strategic environment is complex. It faces numerous internal threats, including secessionist movements; has land borders with 14 nations, including with 4 nuclear weaponed states (North Korea, Russia, India, Pakistan); disputes with most maritime neighbours; and unstable relations with the world’s sole superpower, the US; and is hemmed in the East China and South China Seas by US allies (Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Philippines). And in the past few months, its environment, particularly on its eastern coast, has gone from ‘complex’ to a ‘major headache’.
- Till 2017, the Chinese Foreign minister and the SR/SC were different persons, which made it easier for the Indian side to reach different points (Foreign Ministry; Ministry of Defence; SR) within the Chinese leadership. Wang, as the Foreign Minister and SR/SC, is far more powerful than former SRs – and ostensibly, it’s this interaction that added traction to the disengagement process.
In conclusion, we perhaps need to introspect whether what’s happened fits the Chinese strategy of ‘two steps forward, one step back’ – in which, they advance two steps, then take one step back, leaving them with the net gain of one step and the other side with the option of claiming victory over the reclaimed single step.
(Kuldip Singh is a retired Brigadier of the Indian Army. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)