The announcement for de-escalation, after a two-hour long discussions between the two Special Representatives, on the India-China border issues, has come as a big relief to the tense situation between India and China in Ladakh, which was brewing from May 5th.
The virtual talks between National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi – the two Special Representatives tasked to resolve the territorial dispute and also address overall security issues between the two countries, has provided political guidance for the “earliest complete disengagement” between the troops of the two countries on the Western sector of the border. The announcement expected “full restoration of peace” on the borders with “phased and step-wise” disengagement and de-escalation process. It further stated that both sides “should respect and observe the line of actual control (LAC) and should not take any unilateral action to alter the status quo” on the borders.
Soon after the meeting, it was reported that the disengagement process has actually begun on the ground. It thus provided relief from the heightened tension that had been building up in the area for the past couple of months, this had led to mobilisation of troops and military equipment by both countries.
Such disengagement and de-escalation process, of course, needs to be monitored closely as India’s position has been for restoration of status quo ante – that is the situation prevailing on the ground in April 2020. Since May 5th, fisticuffs and stone throwing became the norm at the Line of Actual Control Areas (LAC) as Chinese troops tried to move into the ‘grey zones’ of the disputed territories and faced stiff resistance from the Indian troops.
The restoration of status quo ante should result in Chinese troops vacating not only the Pangong Tso and Finger Points 4 to 8 but also the Patrol Points 14, 15 and 17 at Galwan, Gogra-Hot Springs and the recent intrusions near Daulat Beg Oldi, Depsang Plains and Galwan heights. Of the 65 Patrol Points in the Western sector of the border starting from Karakoram region till south-east of Ladakh, some areas have become tense recently.
The disengagement process was discussed between the two-armed forces, following the confidence building measures (CBMs) mechanisms evolved since the 1990s. These were discussed at the meetings on June 6th and June 22nd between the local commanders,; but the killing of 20 Indian army personnel and about 43 Chinese PLA personnel on June 15th night at Galwan Patrol Point 14 marred the relations. The meeting between the two Special Representatives came in the wake of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Ladakh on July 3rd; during which he had assured the armed forces of full backing. This sent a strong signal of resolve.
Both countries had evolved elaborate CBMs mechanisms such as 1993 “peace and tranquillity” agreement, 1996 CBMs in the military field, 2005 and 2013 Border Defence Cooperation Agreement that suggested no “tailing” of patrols by the other side. However, the Dokhlam incident in 2017 as well as the current tensions not only in the Western Sector but also at Naku La in Sikkim sector have raised concerns that the CBMs are not being adhered to by Beijing.
While it is welcome to see the two Asian neighbours coming to terms on border stability issues, China’s foreign ministry statement regarding the meeting, suggested different priorities. It stated that while China will strive for ‘peace and tranquillity’ on the borders, it will “firmly” safeguard its territorial sovereignty. Moreover, it invoked the “united front” tactics of focusing on “developmental opportunities”. Significantly, China also suggested that there is a need “to guide public opinion in the right direction” so as to “avoid amplifying the differences” between the two countries.
China’s reservations and conditions, in addition to the past experience of stalled progress on the borders as well as its military logistics build-up, suggest that India needs to remain vigilant in its border security and management in the coming weeks.
Script: PROF. Srikanth Kondapalli, Centre for Chinese Studies,
Jawaharlal Nehru University