In the age of instant and breaking news, there’s always the possibility of much excitement over an announcement that the media and the people are waiting for, like that by Shri Rajnath Singh, the defence minister, that China and India have agreed to withdraw its troops – for the moment – from the Pangong Tso area. This provides some relief after the war like situation that had come to prevail along the LAC since April 2020.
However, we’d do well to carefully watch if China keeps to what has been agreed essentially by the military commanders along the LAC. If China goes beyond the optical act of moving back its front line tanks and heavy vehicles, it has to be seen how far back will these offensive forces be pulled back, as tanks and mechanised vehicles (ICV’s or AFVs) need to be kept at least 50 kilometres away from the frontlines, for the Indian defending forces to respond to any sudden ingress. This was the case until early 2020, when the Chinese forces moved towards the LAC, which the Indian army took to be military exercises. But soon the Dragon ate up whatever lay unguarded along the LAC!
The announcement of a withdrawal, however, shouldn’t lead to any jingoistic chest-thumping, at least, as yet. The Chinese have swiftly moved their tanks back, which is the easiest to do as these can be easily rushed in again. A closer look at the map as per the deal announced shows that the Chinese have ensured that the heights from Finger 4 to Finger 8 will now be a no man’s land. Neither side can patrol there, which our troops earlier used to do.
In this area, the Chinese have built firm fortifications and road links that allows them to rush troops back in case of hostilities. Moreover, the Chinese have found an exit route for their conscripted troops from the harsh cold of those daunting heights, allowing them to pull back to better infrastructure in the rear areas. So it wouldn’t be incorrect to say that they have de-facto kept what they had gained from April 2020, and still given New Delhi a face-saving chance to announce Chinese withdrawals!
The reasons for our troops being caught at an initial disadvantage along the LAC, was their thin deployments along a 1,500-kilometre frontline, because of our military’s obsession to deploy the bulk of our forces and firepower towards Pakistan. The current standoff with China has led to rapid reinforcements, with redeployments that would now be permanent along the LAC, and in general, has led to a military re-think about how to seriously prepare for a two-front conflict against China and Pakistan.
That now remains a serious possibility, even if a complete disengagement finally happens across the entire length of the LAC that runs north to south in east Ladakh. Even then, this certainly would go down as the longest of the long drawn out standoffs, like that at Sumdorong Chu (in 1986-87) and near Doklam (in 2017).
Much will depend hereafter on the outcome of future talks. Will the Chinese withdraw from the areas of Depsang? I doubt it, though India’s forces aren’t at such a disadvantage now, as compared to 2013 when the Chinese moved in there. Special Representatives talks in the past have really led nowhere, as China has been reluctant to agree on any alignment of the LAC beyond their 1959 claim Line.
It was communicated to India by their prime minister Chou en Lai on his visit in 1960, but Pandit Nehru had dismissed the Chinese suggestion over a boundary line whereby if India were to give in to Chinese claims over Aksai Chin, then the Chinese were willing to accept India’s claims in Arunachal Pradesh (then NEFA) south of the McMahon Line.
Nehru had said this would lead to charges of ‘horse trading’, since all the territory that China claimed, “whether Arunachal Pradesh in the east or Aksai Chin in the west, were Indian”, states Zorawar Daulet Singh in his recent book: “Power Shift: India-China relations in a multipolar world”. For many years, even after Pandit Nehru had passed away, Indian diplomats were loyally hanging on to his legacy. This stand-in due course has become an Indian article of faith!
China too is driven by the vision of Mao Zedong, who saw Tibet as the palm of its right hand and Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh (earlier NEFA) as its five fingers that China has to “liberate”.It is for this reason that despite the announcements of withdrawal of Chinese troops, there has been no announcement of China willing to accept India’s claims over Aksai Chin, which it stealthily occupied in the 1950s and has refused to even talk about vacating the large chunk of the newly created Union Territory of Ladakh, that it occupies.
A withdrawal would only take place from the LAC, which has come to be, since 1996. These are based on the ‘perception’ of both armies and manned by troops on important heights or positions of military value. No wonder that the Indian decision to capture the heights on the southern banks of Pangong Tso, gave the Indian army military advantages and put the Chinese PLA in a spot.
But overall, the Chinese army is there to stay in Aksai Chin, and there is no talk of them vacating it. The reality of this has been known to our leadership since the 1950s and so is it now. The reason why China has resorted to this build-up and would stay there as long as it takes, hasn’t been lost on the policymakers at South Block. It had led Dr S. Jaishankar to state that, ‘we know the reason why China amassed troops at the border and breached peace’.
The reasons lie in the pages of Sino-Indian history, which show why an acceptable settlement is still a far cry, despite the several Sino-Indian ‘Agreements’ from 1993, 1996, 2005, and 2013. These did provide a clear direction if there was a sincere desire to settle this long-standing issue. But, in some ways, it is like the India-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir. Neither side can be seen to be giving in, with so much at stake for their political leadership.
Take, for instance, those much-publicised meetings between the leaders of India and China, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chairman Xi Jinping, in 2014, and then following the standoff over Doklam in 2017, and over-structured summits at Wuhan in 2018 and then at Mahabalipuram, near Chennai in 2019, there were major Chinese intrusions across the LAC in 2014 and now in 2020. However, directions to their respective militaries were always to have better and more frequent communication and strengthen the existing CBMs (Confidence Building Measures), so that the SRs (Special Representative) could “seek a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable settlement to the border question”.
These were quite vague. Hence, there was room for (mis)interpretation, and led to transgressions by troops on either side of the LAC, whenever the opportunity arose. But these were generally by patrols along the LAC or the McMahon Line, and were rarely entrenched intrusions, barring a few like that in 2013, whereby the Chinese have occupied heights around the Depsang plains, in eastern Ladakh.
What then brought matters to a head in 2020? From the China perspective, perhaps the three issues that led to Chinese muscle-flexing were, first, India’s effort to improve infrastructure – roads, bridges, tunnels and communication arteries – at various points along the Sino-Indian boundary. For years after the 1962 conflict, India hadn’t developed these for fear that better roads from the Himalayas onto the plains would aid an invading Chinese force to roll down!
Then in July 2013, a decision was taken to raise a strike corps for the Indian Army in the eastern sector, with offensive (defence) capabilities to monitor China’s activities and have acclimatised army units for rapid responses. But it was finally the Modi government’s decision to abrogate Article 370 of the Indian Constitution – that gave J&K a special status – and the creation of new Union territory of Ladakh, and the call thereafter ‘to liberate 38,000 sq. km of Aksai Chin by no less than the Home Minister,’ had all contributed to China’s aggressive behaviour. These issues have been brought out in considerable detail in essays in a recent book compiled by the bureaucrat turned academic, Shakti Sinha, “One Mountain Two Tigers”.
A return to full status quo ante, that is to positions held by both armies before April 2020 – will take long, if it happens at all. Until then, we’d have to watch Chinese actions and monitor our frontlines very carefully. Our boundaries are far from settled and in such a situation, “what you grab is for you to keep’! That is the abiding rule when boundaries are unsettled.
Moreover, any overreaction could lead to a sudden flare-up that could in turn lead to a limited conflict, as we saw around Kargil in 1999. So, for the mandarins in South Block, the real challenge is to seek a settlement over the long-disputed Himalayan boundaries. No political leadership in India has had the courage to adopt a path of give and take.
The future of Sino-India ties will depend on it. Until then, India would have to invest much more in intelligence gathering tools, like satellites, etc. It will be a key to preventing any future flare up again, that may not end without a border conflict.