The Indian aim should be not to concede any de facto shift of the LAC to LAC-2020; be prepared for a two-front war as a worst case scenario; and continue capacity building in all domains.
China and India have announced the disengagement of troops along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), at the southern and northern banks of the Pangong Tso, having commenced since 10 February 2021, Wednesday. This seems to be a positive step to mark the beginning of a possible end of one of the longest standoffs between India and China, and which had tremendous financial and human cost to bear, because of the LOC-isation of the LAC, in the harsh winters. A compulsion to get into some mutually acceptable solution, out of numerous negotiations at various levels is understandable, as stretching the standoff beyond a point was not serving any useful purpose. But the actual worth of the announcements will be seen at the level of implementation, in view of the trust deficit and China’s past track record in junking agreements when it suits them, as the LAC, as well as the border, remains undemarcated between the two countries.
DECODING THE STATEMENTS AND IMPLICATIONS
China’s strategic design involves misinterpreting the statements to its convenience. The Chinese statement indicates that it is a Pangong Tso specific agreement, meaning a synchronised and organised disengagement of frontline troops at the southern and northern banks of the Pangong Tso. This can be inferred by them as a pullback of Indian troops from the Kailash Range, in exchange of PLA moving back their frontline troops from Finger 4, but continuing to maintain their presence elsewhere.
The Defence Minister’s statement in the Rajya Sabha on 11 February, Thursday, highlights that the Chinese side will keep its troop presence in the North Bank area to east of Finger 8, thus moving back from Finger 4 to Finger 8. Reciprocally, Indian troops will be based at their permanent base at Dhan Singh Thapa Post near Finger 3. A similar action would be taken in the South Bank area by both sides. Structures built by both sides since April 2020, in North and South Bank areas, will be removed and the landforms restored. The Chinese, however, have not put out any such assurances in the public domain, so far.
The Defence Minister also highlighted some outstanding issues with regard to the deployment and patrolling at some other points along the LAC in Eastern Ladakh to be discussed later—in the next meeting of the Senior Commanders, within 48 hours after complete disengagement in the Pangong Tso area. It indirectly implies that some Indian concerns including extra kilometres with China in the Depsang plains, Galwan, Gogra and other areas, restrictions on patrolling and the vulnerability of the DS-DBO road will remain to be discussed later.
From the Chinese perspective, this indirectly means that newly occupied heights on Kailash Range, which were their major concern, will be vacated in a phased, coordinated and verified manner by both. The military activity including patrolling to the traditional areas will cease temporarily in north and south of Pangong Tso. Chinese discomfort includes Indian dispositions in India’s Sub Sector North including DBO, infrastructure development including DS-DBO road, viewed as a threat to the crucial Tibet-Xinjiang-Pakistan connectivity, which will remain. The Chinese aim of preventing Indian infrastructure development hasn’t been achieved, as both sides continue development of infrastructure in areas they perceive to be theirs.
WHAT INDIA NEEDS TO BE CAREFUL OF
India in Ladakh is in a position of strength, having created a vulnerability for China south of Pangong Tso and by occupying some crucial heights elsewhere. The professionalism of the Indian military under the extremely harsh climatic conditions of Ladakh, and India’s national resolve to have reacted speedily and decisively during the pandemic, creating a mirror image deployment to even out PLA’s first mover’s advantage, have forced China to revisit its options, leading to the present agreement. This agreement will lead to India losing major advantage of some heights on the Kailash Range—a crucial bargaining chip—in exchange of Chinese recoiling from north of Pangong Tso. This will have to be pursued with the vacating of Depsang and other areas, without which the LAC will get altered de facto and not in India’s favour.
Given the track record of China, it may go through this agreement temporarily and later follow it up by military action, post winter and reoccupy the same areas after getting the Kailash Range vacated from Indians, due to the faster mobilisation advantage it has because of its better infrastructure. This option, however, can be marred with the major risk of loss of face for Xi Jinping, as a military defeat is the last thing he would want, that too in the centenary year of the formation of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The Chinese strategic aim in Eastern Ladakh will continue to be to provide depth to its National Highway G-219, Karakoram Pass and China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), redraw the LAC as per its own perceptions, and negotiate the border on its own terms thereafter.
The Indian aim should be not to concede any de facto shift of the LAC to LAC-2020; be prepared for a two-front war as a worst case scenario; and continue capacity building in all domains, including the maritime arena. As long as the LAC is not demarcated, standoffs will continue, and any temporary solution will only postpone the next standoff, leading to the further LOC-isation of the LAC. The Chinese will like to keep the border unsettled, until the time the political cost of not settling it is higher than doing so for CCP.
Major General S.B. Asthana (Retd), is a strategic and security analyst, a veteran Infantry General with 40 years’ experience in national and international fields and UN.