The CDS, General Bipin Rawat, stated at the Raisina dialogue, ‘I think India has stood firm on the northern borders and we have proven that we will not get pushed. And I think whatever we have been able to achieve, in standing firm, in preventing change of status quo, we have been able garner world support. International community has come together to say that there is an international rule-based order which every nation must follow.’ He added, ‘Some countries try and make their own rules… these lead to conflict situations and that is what we are witnessing on our northern borders.’[i] He was referring to the recent Indo-China standoff in Ladakh and the fact that India stood its ground, occupied dominating features and pushed China onto the discussion table.
After multiple rounds of talks, disengagement took place on both banks of the Pangong Tso. India and China had considered this as a priority region with troops deployed in close proximity. Post disengagement, forces are redeployed to their pre-Mar 2020 locations, while the Finger region has been temporarily designated as a no patrolling zone.
Additional troops remain deployed in Ladakh as the Chinese threat has not diminished. The Army Chief, General M.M. Naravane, stated that the threat to India has only ‘abated’ following the disengagement in Pangong Tso, after the agreement with China, but it has not gone away altogether.[ii] Subsequent Corps Commander level talks, which should have yielded further disengagements, based on the Pangong Tso model, has stalled.
In the 11th round of talks, the Chinese changed their approach from disengagement being the first step, in other friction areas, to de-escalation or pulling back of additional forces. This led to no joint statement being issued, as had been the norm for the previous few meetings. Both sides released their own versions. As per an official, ‘The PLA stopped short of restoring April 2020 status quo ante at Gogra-Hot Springs area and have submitted certain proposals from their side for consideration of the Indian Army. The complete disengagement in this area will take time and more persuasion.’[iii]
There were reports that the Chinese had come with premeditated ideas on future progress in the 11th round of talks. A spokesperson stated that proposals put forth by both sides would be discussed by groups formed for the same. In Delhi they would be taken up the China Study Group.[iv] It is also likely that there would be WMCC (Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on Indo-China Border Affairs) meetings to attempt to bridge gaps and arrive at an amicable solution.
The two independent statements reflect the divergence. The Chinese statement read, ‘We hope the Indian side could cherish the current positive trend of de-escalation and cooling in the border area.’ The Indian statement mentioned completion of disengagement in other areas would pave the way for considering ‘de-escalation of forces’ and ensure full restoration of peace and tranquillity in the region.[v] The difference is that while India considers disengagement across other friction points as the next logical step to normalcy, China desires de-escalation, or move back of additional forces as the first step.
The Chinese proposal implies that while forces remain in stand-off status at Gogra-Hot Springs and Depsang, additional forces must be withdrawn. The Indian perception is disengagement must be implemented prior to de-escalation and withdrawal of additional forces. With disengagement, chances of escalation reduce as both sides revert to their positions of Mar 2020. This is an indicator that the trust deficit which emerged due to Chinese actions last year remains high.
There are also reports that the Chinese appear unwilling to move back from the current hotspots of Gogra, Hot Springs and Depsang. Sources state that at Hot Springs and Gogra Post, the Chinese ‘had agreed earlier’ to pull back troops but ‘later refused to vacate’. In the recent talks, China is stated to have mentioned that India ‘should be happy with what has been achieved’.[vi] Depsang predates the current standoff and was included in the discussions as India was seeking a holistic resolution to the border.
Further, if the Chinese suggestion of de-escalation is implemented, then India may be at a disadvantage. With existing road communications, the Chinese build up into the region would be faster than India. On the other hand, China would find it hard to justify its incursions and subsequent withdrawal with no physical gains. This would be touted as an Indian victory and dent the image of the PLA. Therefore, China accepted disengagement in Pangong Tso, where risk of accidental escalation was high, however appears to be delaying the action for the moment.
The Chinese have repeatedly been stating that the two nations must meet halfway, and India should delink border issues from trade and diplomacy, which India is unwilling to consider.[vii] The External Affairs Minister, on the other hand has been insisting that bilateral ties can only improve if there is peace and tranquillity on the border and the road to normalcy lies through disengagement and de-escalation.[viii] This difference in views has further made finding an amicable solution difficult.
There is no doubt that complete disengagement and then de-escalation will be a long-drawn affair, mainly due to varying perceptions and an intentional desire by China to delay. Both nations remain firm in their stand, India seeking pre-Mar 2020 positions and China desiring that the current deployment be the new status quo. For India, Chinese pull back will be a sign of victory and for China, a sign of defeat. The Chinese proposal, if implemented, will be a partial reverse. This difference in perception will ensure that the two nations would remain antagonists for a prolonged period and a resolution to the LAC standoff would take considerable time. Bilateral ties would remain affected.