Script by M. S. Prathibha, Associate Fellow, East Asia Centre, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses
India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and China’s State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi spoke for about 75 minutes over the phone about the border situation in Eastern Ladakh. During the phone conversation, the process of military disengagement at Pangong Tso was reviewed and the Indian side also pushed for disengagement from other friction points in Eastern Ladakh.
The telephonic conference signals high-level political supervision from both sides to ensure that India and China do not lose the momentum achieved after the successful disengagement from Pangong Tso. The disengagement process ensured the withdrawal of frontline troops of both countries at the north and south banks of the river, where the Chinese side has pulled back to Finger 8 and the Indian side to Finger 3. Having achieved the disengagement, both sides will have to negotiate and agree on patrolling, which has been stopped in the vacated areas in Pangong Tso.
By noting the important consensus reached by the two ministers in Moscow in September 2020, Jaishankar wanted to express that agreements and protocols reached between India and China should not be altered by engaging in violence. Moreover, the Moscow agreement also acknowledged that if the border situation continues to persist, it will benefit neither side. Therefore, the Indian side wanted to express through the conversation the ways the bilateral relationship could be brought back to normal and the importance of peace at the border to the development of overall bilateral relations. Therefore, the high-level telephonic meeting lets India pursue its objectives on the disengagement process and the broader bilateral relationship.
From the Indian side, the focus of the meeting was to convey certain sentiments to the Chinese side. First, it is to communicate to the Chinese side that unilaterally altering the status quo in the border areas would affect the bilateral relationship. Second, to emphasise that the communication channels have never been closed between the two sides at both military and diplomatic channels. Third, the Indian side also wanted to expedite disengagement at all other areas given that both the militaries had already held the 10th round of military talks to resolve the remaining issues in Eastern Ladakh. This would need sustained political intervention, and the telephonic meeting is a step in that direction. Lastly, it is to propose the idea of broader de-escalation of the troops in Eastern Ladakh to maintain peace and tranquillity in the border areas. The meeting also led to an understanding of the Chinese satisfaction about the progress made on the disengagement process and their view on both sides consolidating the outcomes.
It is thus a welcome outcome that both sides agreed to establish a communication hotline. It would allow both sides to continue supervising the implementation of the consensus reached by the two countries. The disengagement process at other areas in Eastern Ladakh and other issues in the bilateral relations would need constant dialogue and consultation, which the hotline would immensely help in achieving, alongside supplementing the existing military hotline.
The two ministers’ telephone call show a measured approach to de-escalate tensions between the two countries. The military stand-off has continued for months and both countries had to engage in dialogue at both military and diplomatic levels to arrive at the disengagement completion at Pangong Tso. India has also been able to counter the Chinese military moves in the border areas by its own massive military deployment. Moreover, the Indian pre-emptive military action in occupying certain peaks have allowed it to gain a certain strategic advantage over the Chinese side.