There were reports last week that India is considering a Chinese proposal on disengagement and subsequent de-escalation along the LAC in Ladakh. Nothing has yet been accepted nor firmed up. It would need multiple rounds of talks before finalisation. As per inputs, the Chinese proposed that they would initially pull back on the North bank of Pangong Tso to their positions behind Finger 8, after which India would withdraw to its positions near the Dhan Singh Thapa post at Finger 2/3. The region between Fingers 4 to 8 could remain a no-movement zone.
The second stage would involve pulling back armoured and artillery elements deployed on the Southern Bank, where India holds the key having occupied heights along the Kailash Ridge. This would be followed by pulling back of troops in this region.
The status of Depsang will be discussed once disengagement at Pangong Tso is complete. As per an Indian security official, “Depsang is an old problem. The first priority is flash points in the Pangong Tso and Chushul areas.” The possible reason which compelled China to open discussions for de-escalation is impact of the weather on Chinese troops. Further, the fact that hardened Indian troops hold heights that dominate Chinese positions enhances their vulnerabilities and restricts further options, leading to a stalemate.
China proposed multiple verifying mechanisms, hoping that India would agree considering the high trust deficit between the two nations. It also accepted that it will be the first to withdraw, which remains a primary Indian demand. As a first step both sides have turned barrels of tanks deployed in close proximity in opposite, non-threatening directions.
This latest proposal was put forth by the Chinese representative to the Corps Commanders talks in a one-toone meeting. It was the first one-toone meeting between the two delegate heads, and it was requested by China. All earlier meetings had only delegation level talks. The intention was to convey the message in a subtle manner without it being broadcast as an official communique by the Chinese. Such a proposal would have only emerged with approval from the top Chinese hierarchy.
Once the proposal was announced by Indian media, the Chinese mouthpiece, the Global Times, jumped in accusing Indian media of projecting false inputs. It stated, “the disengagement plan mentioned by Indian media is the media’s self-interpretation about the outcome of previous talks between the two sides. But it also to some extent reveals the actual unilateral thought of Indian militaries. However, it cannot represent the result the two sides have reached, nor will it be the final plan.” This was expected as China had been broadcasting in its internal WeChat forums that it had achieved its objectives in Ladakh, whereas the reality was vastly different.
Subsequently, Global Times was compelled to change tune and published another editorial stating, “India should first withdraw staff who illegally crossed the line on the southern side of the Pangong Tso Lake, and China will then consider disengaging on the northern side of the lake.” It was forced to accept that such a proposal exists, though unwilling to officially accept that the offer flowed from the Chinese government. At some stage, China would be compelled to state to its people that its attempts to regain its claim lines had failed and it was forced to pull back.
There are reports that the Chinese delegation to the talks has been objecting to news reports and views in the Indian media, which place China as being under pressure and having proposed the withdrawal. India, being a democratic country has a free media, whose reporting cannot be curbed.
Few defence analysts have commented that any reversion to status quo in the Pangong Tso region would lead to India losing advantages it gained by occupying the Kailash Ridge, an action undertaken for the first time, since 1962. Further, in any future offensive actions undertaken by China, it would occupy the same heights in the initial phase itself, denying India any advantage. Analysts have compared these heights to Siachen, where Indian forces have remained in situ since 1984, aware that if vacated, Pakistan would take advantage.
With China also continuing its deployment in Depsang, India would not be in a position to regain its claim lines in the region. Hence, these analysts advocate that India retain its terrain advantage by continuing its deployment on the Kailash Ridge and include Depsang in the current discussions. In such a scenario, the eyeball to eyeball contact would remain and the LAC could become another de-facto LoC.
There is no doubt that occupation of the Kailash Ridge has provided India a position of strength on the discussion table and pushed China to offer solutions. Simultaneously, Depsang opens vulnerabilities which India would seek to avoid.
While concerns of the strategic community are genuine, they must trust and accept that those at the helm of decision making have far better inputs and understanding of Chinese intentions, strengths and weaknesses. They would never create an environment where India ends at a disadvantage. Agreements on mutual pull back, if ever arrived at, would include safeguards based on lessons learnt. No decision would be taken in a hurry. India would evaluate Chinese proposals in depth before responding with their own.
However, for India, the pullback would only stem the Chinese threat for a while. It is possibly the commencement of additional attempts at salami slicing in the years ahead. The next could emerge in multiple sectors and maybe with greater force levels, incorporating lessons learnt from the current failure. India hence cannot let its guard down and must continue building capabilities to deter the Chinese. Simultaneously, India needs to reconsider its current force structures deployed at the Western and Northern borders, readjust and reallocate.
India has stared down the dragon and compelled it to withdraw, a first since 1979 for China. It is unlikely that there would be any Wuhan-Mahabalipuram meetings for some time. China has stabbed India in the back and this country will never forget that. India will now remain on perpetual guard against China and its intentions.
The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army.