Could China String Out Pullback Process? What This Means for India

Various options are on the table, but given the bad experience in the pullback in June, there is need for caution. 

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The Chinese media has poured cold water over reports that appeared in the Indian media this week, claiming that India and China were close to a pullback agreement in  the Pangong-Chushul area.

In a report published on Thursday, the Global Times said that such assertions “are inaccurate and not helpful.” It accused the Indian media of deliberately projecting “India’s tough stance through partially true and partially false information with the aim of stirring up domestic nationalism.”

However, citing Qian Feng, working at the National Strategy Institute of the prestigious Tsinghua University, the newspaper acknowledged that the two sides were working in the same direction, “and have reached some consensus,” but not the wide-ranging agreement described by the Indian media.

According to Qian, the Indian sources who briefed the media were aiming to pressure China, as well as to appear favourable to the Indian public. The burden of the report is, of course, that China is right and India is wrong.

The Global Times was citing nearly identical reports that appeared in the Indian media on Thursday (12 November), suggesting that India and China were close to an agreement for the Pangong-Chushul area.

This disengagement, The Times of India said on Thursday, would begin from the north bank of the Pangong Tso, where the PLA had occupied and fortified an 8 km stretch from Finger 4 to Finger 8 since early May. The Chinese side would pull back to east of Finger 8, while the Indians would pull back to a position between Fingers 2 and 3. This zone would, thereafter, become a “no patrol” zone.

Then, they would then pull back tanks and heavy weaponry that had been brought into the area, and lastly, both sides would pull back from the forward positions they have taken along the Kailash range in the south bank of Pangong Tso and make this a ‘no patrol’ zone.

Two days earlier, on 10 November, the Indian Army Chief MM Naravane had told a defence conclave that he was hopeful of reaching an agreement with China in eastern Ladakh.

“The process is on. We are hopeful that we will be able to reach an agreement that is mutually acceptable, “ he was quoted as saying.

Premature, Not Inaccurate

Reading between the lines, it would suggest that the Indian reports may be premature, rather than inaccurate. That discussions have been going on various proposals was known since mid-October when External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar acknowledged that talks were on, but he said, “what is going on is something confidential between us and China.”

Various options are on the table, but, given the bad experience in the pull back in the Galwan river valley in June, there is need for caution. The tone of The Global Times report suggests that the Chinese could well string out the process and an imminent pull back may not quite be on the cards.

One reason for this is that the Indian side will be disproportionately affected by the cold weather with its routes to Leh snowed up. The Chinese side may want to test the Indian response as to how eager they were for a pull back.

The basic process of disengagement had actually begun after the very first round of talks between the Corps Commanders of the two sides, Lt Gen Harinder Singh and Maj-Gen Liu Lin at Moldo on 6 June. It was this meeting that obtained the pull back in Galwan, but that went awry because of some local factors. Successive meetings, though prolonged, have incrementally got the two sides into consensus of sorts, but no breakthrough is yet visible.

The key impetus to the process was given by the five point “consensus” arrived at between Indian and Chinese foreign ministers in Moscow at the side lines of the SCO ministerial meet in early September.

According to the joint statement issued after the talks, the two sides were enjoined to “continue their dialogue, quickly disengage, maintain proper distance and ease tensions.”

In turn, this statement rested itself in the “consensus” arrived at between Prime Minister Modi and President Xi in their informal summits in Wuhan and Chennai in 2018 and 2019, respectively, that they should abide by existing agreements and not allow differences to become disputes.

So, in the sixth round of talks on 21 September, the two sides had agreed to stop sending more troops to the frontline and avoid taking actions that may complicate the situation. In a joint statement, the Chinese and military commanders said that they were implementing the consensus reached by their leaders to strengthen communication on the ground and avoid misunderstandings.

On 12 October, they had their seventh round of talks, but there was no joint release indicating any sign of progress. And a month later on 6 November, they had held their eighth round of talks.

But the joint statement was anodyne and did not saying anything beyond the need to implement the “consensus reached by the leaders of the two countries.” But, in fact, they had already begun discussing the proposals that are now being talked about.

A Wide Gap

It is clear that there is still a wide gap between the position of two sides.

Ideally, both sides will want the other to act, arguing that their own are legitimate. Failing this, the Chinese would like the Indians to initiate the withdrawal, while the Indians want the Chinese to do so first, because they were the ones who altered the status quo. Then, the Chinese would like to limit the issue of the Pangong area, while India also wants agreement in the Depsang blockade which prevents the Indian forces from patrolling a significant part of the area that it claims and where it patrolled earlier.

Actually it’s not even clear as to whether the Chinese will want to make any significant pullback in the Pangong area. The Global Times report cited above says that “India has always had ‘unrealistic’ ideas” about the LAC, “unilaterally believing that Fingers 4 to 8 are its patrolling areas.”

Then, there are influential figures like Lt Gen HS Panag, who has warned against pulling back from the forward positions Indian forces took on 29 and 30 August at the Kailash range. These positions have given them an overview of the Chinese garrison along the Spanggur Tso lake, and forcing them to construct an alternate road to bypass Indian line of sight.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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