Nine months after the standoff began and eight months after Galwan, disengagement has finally commenced. China had intruded into Indian territory in May last year. India’s rapid counter deployment stalled them in their tracks. Galwan displayed a strong Indian intent of not backing down. The award of war decorations to the fighters of Galwan conveyed the message that India considered the Chinese intrusion as an act of war and was willing to escalate, if needed, to ensure defence of its territory.
Indian counter measures on both banks of the Pangong Tso, gave the government confidence that the army would hold on to its positions and any further Chinese ingress would be thwarted. Hence, the government never rushed into an agreement despite multiple rounds of talks and threats of escalation. It matched Chinese deployment in every form, whether troops, armour or artillery. The imposition of economic measures and growing security cooperation with the US and QUAD nations added to the strong message from India. The disengagement, when announced, was unexpected.
The Chinese government released information on the disengagement on the 10 February, while the defence minister, Rajnath Singh, announced it in the Lok Sabha the next day. There is no denial that arriving at an acceptable solution for disengagement was not easy. It took nine rounds of military talks, multiple meetings of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs as also back-channel diplomacy. The accepted proposal must have been put forth in the last talks held on 24 January, discussed, war-gamed, possibly modified, approved and finally announced. Inputs of soldiers on the ground would have carried the most weight.
With high levels of trust deficit, especially after Galwan, every stage of the withdrawal process would be slow, monitored by multiple sources before the next stage can begin. India has had two experiences of Chinese accepting to withdraw and then not following through. Galwan was a verification process gone sour. Hence, India would doubt Chinese intentions. The initial withdrawal of heavy equipment including armour and artillery has begun, with troops holding defences being the last to pull back.
Once disengagement of both banks of Pangong Tso is complete, discussions on Gogra post and Hot Springs would commence. These are relatively easy to conclude and probably both forces would enhance the gap between themselves and there would be a patrolling block till norms for it are established. Finally, there would be Depsang, which precedes the current standoff. Disengagement would be followed by de-escalation and ultimately by de-induction, returning the region to the pre-April 2020 period.
Rumours were spread on social media highlighting that the agreement was not in India’s favour and that it had lost territory. This perception was cleared by the MoD in a statement, which mentioned, “India has not conceded any territory as a result of this agreement. On the contrary, it has enforced observance and respect for the LAC and prevented any unilateral change in status quo.”
The emphasis during the first disengagement agreement involved regions where troops are in close contact and an unintended incident could lead to a serious escalation. Troops of both countries would move back to their permanent camps as on April 2020. The area between the camps would be considered as no man’s land temporarily. Hence, both banks of the Pangong Tso including the Kailash Ridge are being dealt with in the first phase. The statement of the MoD added, “Other outstanding issues are to be taken up within 48 hours of the completion of the Pangong Tso disengagement.”
The proposal and process of disengagement would have been approved by troops on the ground, who being in contact with the enemy know what is best. Without their goahead, the government could never move forward. The army can never sacrifice Indian territory, nor would it give unwarranted advantage to an enemy. It would have war-gamed multiple scenarios including long term measures before recommending the process of disengagement.
Further, discussions are between two nations, both equally powerful. Hence, it is unlikely that one would give undue benefit to the other, including accepting loss of territory. Restoring the situation to pre-April 2020 levels implies restoration of status quo, an Indian demand, which has been achieved. Credit for this must go to the army for its stellar actions and the government for imposing faith on it.
How should India look towards the future? The current disengagement does not indicate resolution of the LAC issue nor does it signal permanent peace and tranquillity. It should be considered as a stopgap arrangement till the border issue is permanently resolved. The Indian government must continue seeking a border solution through dialogue without excessive rhetoric or chest thumping. Patience should remain the key.
How long would the current tranquillity last is a multimillion-dollar question? Would other friction points witness similar disengagement remains unknown? While Depsang pre-dates the current incident, the others are recent. Whether the Chinese would be sincere in seeking tranquillity across the entire LAC is unknown. In brief, there are more unknowns than knowns.
Incidents across the LAC signal that the Chinese would continue to attempt salami slicing wherever they get an opportunity. The forces need to be ready to thwart such attempts. Hence, the government must not slow down its modernization of the armed forces only because a solution has been reached in Ladakh. Simultaneously, border infrastructure must continue to be built.
The armed forces must possess capabilities to meet growing Chinese challenges and be a deterrence to any future Chinese attempts to alter status quo. The armed forces are also in a state of transition from single service structures to joint forces. This must be pushed and completed at the earliest. Enhanced joint capabilities are essential in future conflicts.
China would have also learnt from this misadventure. They would have understood that not all nations would accept their hegemony and aggressive designs. India possesses soldiers with far more combat experience and professional competence and are willing to challenge them. Further, India would seek a resolution on equal terms, never from a position of weakness.
The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army.