India must be conscious that there has been no dilution in China’s stated policy and claim for Indian territory

The media has been agog with the news of a breakthrough in the disengagement process, in Eastern Ladakh, at the Sino-India border. The latest withdrawal, after 11 months of sustained military- diplomatic talks, at the friction point of Hot Springs- PP15, commenced on September 8, 2022. This is an outcome of the 16th round of Corps Commanders talks, held on July 17, 2022, at Chushul, on the Indian side of the border.

The timing of the disengagement just prior to the SCO meeting in Uzbekistan on September 16-17, 2022, being attended by both Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping, raises questions on the real intentions behind this rapprochement. The Chinese are known to always have a more complex agenda behind any event. The disengagement is indeed welcome irrespective of the real intentions.

The current standoff between the two armies was post a violent patrol clash in the Pangong Tso region on May 05, 2020, followed by the bloody skirmish of June 2020, at Galwan, in which both sides suffered huge casualties. This precipitated tensions between the two neighbours, resulting in increased incursions and face offs, between the PLA and the Indian Army, not only in Ladakh, but in other areas astride the ‘Line of actual Control’ in Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim.

Fortunately, the major focus of confrontation and eyeball to eyeball deployment of forces was limited to Eastern Ladakh. Since then politico – economic retaliatory actions by India, led to a complete breakdown of talks at the apex level of the two countries. However, to create conditions for restoration of normalcy in bilateral relations, there have been a series of high-level talks between the Corps Commanders and at diplomatic level through the erstwhile “Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs (WMCC)”.

It was the 24th meeting of the WMCC of May 31, that led to the 16th round of Corps Commanders interaction and the current withdrawal. Earlier rounds of talks had led to disengagement of troops from both sides of the Pangong Tso, in February 2021 and from PP 17 in the Gogra-Hot Springs area in August 2021.

In the intervening period of two years, both have continued with their respective build-up. And today there are over 50,000 troops and heavy equipment deployed in the proximity of the LAC, by both the armies in Ladakh-Xinjiang. The ground status has been irreversibly altered at the LAC, due to China’s massive overdrive to construct infrastructure, habitat and ancillary structures for its troops, that have now been deployed in close vicinity to the LAC, in this sector.

A PIB report said Indian and Chinese militaries on September 12 moved back their frontline troops to the rear locations from PP-15 in Gogra-Hot Spring area in eastern Ladakh It also confirmed that the withdrawal includes dismantling of temporary fortifications and logistic infrastructure created since the confrontation.

Earlier, the MEA informed that the ‘landforms’ in the area will be restored to the pre-stand-off period and that both sides will ensure that there is no unilateral action to change the status quo. The delay at arriving at this resolution of PP 15, was due to conflicting positions of the two countries. India has been insistent on comprehensive disengagement and de-escalation, implying that there should be a resolution of the existing friction at Depsang and CNN junction in Demchok.

China has been maintaining that it is not a part of the current stand-off. It is to the credit of China that it has repeatedly tried to resume bilateral talks at senior levels of officialdom, but India has been firm in its stance that the situation at the borders is linked to improved relations. India had an uninvited visit by the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in March 2022 and there have been talks between the two Foreign Ministers at the side lines of international conferences. The most recent being during the G-20 ministerial meeting at Bali on July 7, 2022.

The bigger question that needs to be addressed: Is this withdrawal a success for India? Will it herald an end of the current stand off and pave the way for a final solution to the boundary issue? It can be termed as a partial success; for this, step forward has been due to a combination of reasons, from India’s insistence for comprehensive dialogue, firming in of Indian combat resources in eastern Ladakh and resolute political leadership, that took cognisance and meaningful actions against Chinese linked economic excesses.

The best-case scenario is if we can get China to agree to find a permanent solution to the Sino-Indian border issues. However, as the first step we need to make Ladakh peaceful with resolution of the continuing standoff at Depsang and Demchok.

On the other hand, we must be conscious that there has been no dilution in China’s stated policy and claim for Indian territory. China still firmly believes and follows Mao Tse Tung’s security imperatives, that China needs to control Tibet and its peripheral States of Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh (erstwhile North East Frontier agency). He used the analogy of Tibet being China’s right palm and the above five countries/states its five fingers.

Therefore, the recently promulgated China’s Border Law and establishment of 650 Xiaokang, well off border villages by China opposite Nepal and Arunachal Pradesh, gains significance. Also, China looks at achieving its aims at all costs and time is never critical. We need to institute necessary ‘checks and balances’, to ensure that we always have matching capability on ground opposite China and protect the region and its human resource from indirect machinations.

Therefore, when it comes to dealing with China, we need to be circumspect and take things as they unfold, without letting our guard down. We need to be clear on our long term goal and carve a well calibrated strategy in dealing and interacting with China, in all forums.

***The author is a former C in C, Indian Army; views expressed are his own