The 11th round of IndoChina talks were held on 9 April. There was no joint statement issued at the end of the talks, as had been the norm earlier.
The Indian army statement read, “The two sides had a detailed exchange of views for the resolution of the remaining issues related to disengagement along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Eastern Ladakh. The two sides agreed on the need to resolve outstanding issues in an expeditious manner in accordance with existing agreements and protocols.”
It was evident that there were disagreements. Following this was the 22nd meeting of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on Indo-China border affairs (WMCC), held on 25 June. The Ministry of External Affairs statement issued at the end of the meeting stated, “Both sides agreed on the need to find an early resolution to the remaining issues along the LAC in Eastern Ladakh keeping in view the agreement reached between the two Foreign Ministers in September 2020.
The two sides agreed to hold the next (12th) round of the Senior Commanders meeting at an early date to achieve the objective of complete disengagement from all the friction points.” Nothing moved forward. External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar met his Chinese counterpart on the side lines of the SCO summit in Dushanbe, Tajikistan in mid-July. After the interaction both sides issued their own version of what was raised.
Jaishankar stated, “Highlighted that unilateral change of status quo is not acceptable. Full restoration and maintenance of peace and tranquillity in border areas is essential for development of ties.” The Chinese foreign ministry had a divergent perception. It stated, “The two sides must place the border issue in an appropriate position in bilateral relations, expand the positive momentum of bilateral cooperation and create favourable conditions for resolving differences through negotiation.”
Evidently, while Jaishankar conveyed Indian anger at the Chinese reluctance to disengage, the Chinese perception is that the current stalemate should be accepted as the new normal. India has refused to normalize ties claiming tensions along the LAC. Since the disengagement in Pangong Tso, there has been relative calm. Both sides have adhered to the agreements reached thus far.
Disagreement remains on future sequence of action. India seeks disengagement followed by de-escalation, while China seeks the reverse. China is hoping that if it continues with discussions while retaining its present troop dispositions, India may accept status quo. That is unlikely to happen. The Chinese attitude has led to India hardening its stand on matters which the Chinese consider forbidden territory.
PM Modi congratulated the Dalai Lama on his birthday and announced the same on social media, angering the Chinese. On the contrary, India did not convey greetings to China for its CCP centenary. India’s financial restrictions on ? Chinese companies continue unabated. In Ladakh, both nations have reoriented their forces. India has deployed an additional division and enhanced its strike capabilities to counter any Chinese misadventures.
This has led to China feverishly constructing accommodation to house additional forces in Aksai Chin, which remains its Achilles’ Heel as its main highways linking the mainland to Tibet and Xinjiang traverse this region. This can be interdicted by Indian forces. For China, securing these highways has now become a priority. It is aware that India is no longer a pushover and could rebound with its own offensive designs.
Therefore, this summer is witnessing hectic construction activities on both sides, seeking to deter any future attempts by the other. India had never contemplated offensive operations against China, based on which China felt secure. The current standoff and the Galwan clash changed Indian perceptions. The myth of the PLA was broken, and political attitudes changed. Reality of the Chinese being untrustworthy gained traction.
China, which had never maintained forces in the region, is now being compelled to construct billets for permanent deployment to secure its lines of communications. China is no longer confident that its major arteries will remain secure. It would perpetually have this concern, which is why it is deploying additional troops in Ladakh There are also reports of movement of Chinese troops opposite the Barahoti bowl sector of Uttarakhand.
Forces are poised to foil any misadventure by the Chinese. In Ladakh, as it happens annually, Chinese forces came forward to stop celebrations of the Dalai Lama’s birthday carrying placards, which were ignored. It is against this backdrop that the next round of army talks are scheduled to be held within the next two weeks. As per inputs, China had proposed 26 July as the date for the next round of military talks. This being Kargil Diwas, India rejected the date.
Fresh dates are likely to flow soon. The question which remains is whether this round of talks would yield any progress or would it be another round of discussions with no end in sight. For China, reversal to status quo of April 2020 is indicative of defeat, hence it is likely to suggest solutions which may not be acceptable to India. Simultaneously both sides will announce the intention of maintaining peace and tranquillity as also finding a solution to the border issue. India has refused to display any flexibility in its approach and resume bilateral ties till status quo is achieved.
India, adopting the offensive option of enhancing its deployment in Ladakh, has indicated that it will not back down and accept Chinese perceptions of the LAC. China had miscalculated Indian resolve. It had expected to reach its claim lines and push India into prolonged discussions. However, it was stalled and forced to pull back from Pangong Tso. In other regions of Ladakh, a stalemate exists, with forces maintaining a distance, thus reducing chances of an escalation.
Till a solution is found and disengagement occurs, both nations are preparing for deployment of additional forces. Neither side trusts the other. India’s increased proximity to the US, strengthening and militarizing the QUAD as also partnering western nations against China is the result of their misadventure in Ladakh. Indo-China relations, carefully nurtured over the years have been set back by decades.
(The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army)