Given the sorry history of the recent Sino-Indian relations, it would be prudent to take the report of the disengagement of the Chinese and Indian forces in Ladakh to their pre-April 2020 positions, with a generous pinch of the rock-salt that India used to export to Tibet in the old days.
Yet, the details provided on Thursday by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh are fairly substantial and suggest that the Pangong Tso problem in the north and south banks will indeed see a status quo ante as of April 2020.
The minister told Parliament that sustained talks had led to an agreement on disengagement on the north and south banks of the Pangong Lake. He added that the Chinese would keep their troop presence to the east of Finger 8 and the Indians would remain at their permanent base at the Dhan Singh Thapa Post near Finger 3.
He said that these were “mutual and reciprocal step” and any structures that had been built by both sides since April 2020 in both the north and south banks would be removed “and the landforms will be restored.”
Significantly, both sides will stop patrolling to the extent of their respective claims in the Finger area.
Have the Chinese Scored a ‘Self-Goal’?
But call it it disengagement, de-escalation or normalisation, India-China relations are unlikely to go back to the pre-April 2020 days which rudely shattered the process of maintaining peace and tranquility on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) pending a final boundary settlement.
Whatever may have been their goals, what the Chinese have done is to have persuaded India to enhance its presence in its northern border.
In the process they appear to have scored a self-goal because an intensified Indian focus there means that much greater insecurity for Chinese forces in Tibet.
Whether or not there is some unstated trade-off relating to India’s participation in the Quad is not known. But some observers have pointed to the fact that the US readout of last week’s Modi-Biden phone called for “a stronger regional architecture through the Quad.” But the Indian readout left out any reference to the Quad.
The news of the disengagement was released on Wednesday in simultaneous statements by the Chinese foreign and defence ministries.
Wang Wenbin, the foreign ministry spokesman said that riding on the decision taken by the two foreign ministers at a meeting in September 2020 and the subsequent commander-level talks in Ladakh, “the frontline forces of the Chinese and Indian armed forces began to organise disengagement in the Pangong Lake area on 10 February, “ adding that “we hope the Indian side will work with China to meet each other halfway… and ensure the smooth implementation of the disengagement process.”
A Massive Trust Deficit
According to reports, withdrawal in the Depsang and the Charding Ninglung Nullah junction in the Demchok sector will be discussed in subsequent meetings. Presumably thereafter the two sides would discuss the more complicated Depsang plains issue.
Given the shortage of trust, it is more than likely that they have worked out the formula of taking up one area at a time, and then building towards status quo as of April 2020 all along the LAC. There is simply too much lack of trust for anything to happen precipitously.
Recall the sudden Chinese decision to establish a blockade at Finger 4 and prevent the patrolling of Indian border guards to Finger 8 which India believes is where the LAC should be.
Recall, too, the Indian occupation of the Kailash Range which brought the two forces eyeball-to-eyeball in the region in the southern bank of the Pangong Tso. This move enabled India to surveil Chinese deployments in the Spanggur Tso area and touched off an effort by the Chinese army, the PLA, to push back the Indian troops using tactics similar to the ones that led to the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers in the Galwan river valley on 15/16 June 2020. This, in turn, led to Indian forces firing in the air, the first instance of bullets being fired across the LAC since a clash in 1975.
Speculation that the two countries have been ready for a deal has been in the air since November 2020. At the time, several media outlets had cited senior government officials to say that a three-phase plan for disengagement had been readied. The plan called for disengagement of the frontline forces, the withdrawal of supporting forces that had brought in heavy armour and artillery near the LAC and normalisation. But this had been denied by the Chinese who said that the Indians were spreading a canard to rally nationalist opinion.
Assuming that the news is correct and we are on a track of disengagement and de-escalation all along eastern Ladakh, how should we look at the issue?
At one level, as we said, the Chinese side may have scored a self-goal. For the past decade they have been fretting over the growth of Indian capabilities along the LAC. Now, they have succeeded in confirming to the Indian authorities that their emphasis on building up the infrastructure along the border was a sound one.
Have the Chinese Bitten Off More Than They Can Chew?
In a recent article, China hand and former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran noted that in the past, the Chinese had used carefully calibrated tactics to heat up the LAC, without letting things boil over. But the events in 2020 were a change of its operating procedure by carrying out what could have been a substantial change of the alignment of the LAC.
But they did not expect the tough Indian response, which went beyond keeping issues confined to the border. India announced restrictions on Chinese commercial interests in the country and pointedly escalated its relationship with the Quad.
The decisions announced on Wednesday suggest that the Chinese have backed off because the other option for them would have been to escalate the situation, for which they were clearly not ready.
Note that the Chinese had not come prepared for war. The very fact that the fists, stones and sticks were used, and displayed, in their push, suggests that the aim was limited to changing the LAC in eastern Ladakh at some key points. Saran rhetorically posed the question as to whether the Chinese had bitten off more than they could chew. The disengagement agreement provides its own answer to that question.
(The writer is Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)