Script by Prof. Rajaram Panda, former Senior Fellow, IDSA and ICCR Chair Professor at Reitaku University, JAPAN.
After several rounds of diplomatic and military corps commander level negotiations, India and China finally decided to pull back troops from a disputed border in the Himalayas. This is a key breakthrough in easing the worst military standoff in decades between the two countries. Defense Minister Rajnath Singh informed the parliament that disengagement process of troops would begin from the strategic Pangong Tso lake in Ladakh, the flashpoint between the Asian giants. Singh informed the parliament that “that both sides will cease their forward deployments in a phased coordinated and verified manner.”
The fact that the Chinese came down to concede after flexing so much of its military prowess demonstrates its realisation that India today is no pushover than it was in 1962 and that living in peace is a better option than confrontation. The Chinese Defense Ministry, therefore, announced that armies of both sides had begun “synchronized and organized disengagement” on the southern and northern shores of the lake.
In May 2020 when the Chinese troops intruded deep into the territory patrolled by Indian soldiers in the Pangong Tso lake area, the standoff started. Indian troops patrolling the territory accused that the Chinese troops of coming deep into its territory and erecting tents and guard posts. China denied, claiming that its troops were operating in its own area and accused Indian border guards of provocative actions. India toughened its stance when 20 Indian soldiers were martyred in June 2020 in brutal hand-to-hand combat while defending the Indian Territory.
With tempers running high, both sides deployed tens of thousands of soldiers, fighter aircraft and heavy artillery along icy Himalayan slopes. India wanted to “maintain peace and tranquillity at LAC [line of actual control]”.
It may be recalled that large stretches of the roughly 3,800 kilometre-long India-China border in the Himalayas are disputed. Both sides claim large swathes of each other’s territory. The boundary dispute has irked bilateral ties since both sides fought a war in 1962. When negotiations failed to resolve the issue, both sides bolstered forces all along the border.
While the disengagement decision is welcome, the element of suspicion and distrust will not go away anytime soon. But the decision to disengage could lead to building up of confidence between the two sides, though cautiously. Much would depend upon China to ensure its commitment to disengage and therefore the trust deficit needs to be removed soon.
The truism is that China has lost the trust of the world in large measure and India would have to remain on its guard to watch and observe China’s future behaviour. At the same time, India needs to deepen ties with the US and other friendly countries such as Japan and Vietnam and strengthen other institutional mechanisms such as the Quad as counter-measures to keep China’s aggressiveness in check. In the light of the above, it was appropriate that Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke with the US President Joe Biden and agreed to strengthen Indo-Pacific security through the Quad grouping. Though not officially acknowledged, Quad consisting of India, the US, Japan and Australia, is perceived to be an institutional mechanism to address China’s growing assertiveness in the region.
Regretfully, the Defence Minister had to rebut the false accusation made by the Congress leader Rahul Gandhi that the government had ‘ceded’ Indian territory to the Chinese. The Ministry of Defence had to issue a strongly-worded statement, asserting that the country’s national interest and territory in the Eastern Ladakh sector has been protected effectively by the armed forces of the country. In a strongly-worded statement, the Ministry of Defence asked those who question the government’s stance tantamount to disrespecting the military personnel.
It further clarified that the territory of India as depicted by the map of India and includes more than 43,000 sq km currently under illegal occupation of China since 1962. As per the Indian perception, the LAC is at Finger 8, not at Finger 4, which is why India has persistently maintained the right to patrol up to Finger 8, including the current understanding with China.
Notwithstanding the accusations by Congress, the truism is that India has not conceded any territory as a result of the agreement but has enforced observance and respect for LAC and preventing any unilateral change in the status quo.