The talks between the Indian and Chinese foreign ministers can be seen as a holding operation, an effort to defuse, if possible, the situation diplomatically, hoping that China realises that India will fight back this time, as shown by its occupation of mountain heights south of Pangong Tso to obtain tactical control of the Spanggur Gap. A major conflict seems inbuilt into the situation unless better sense prevails. China must step back as it has triggered this confrontation. Its talk of meeting half-way is unrealistic because that would mean that China gains half and India loses half.

External affairs minister Jaishankar’s meeting with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Moscow on September 10 was preceded by a meeting of the defence ministers, which, from the subsequent tough statements issued by both sides did not break meaningful ground. Wang Yi could not have carried a significantly different mandate. However, how the fluid situation develops cannot be fully anticipated by either side, and therefore keeping the diplomatic channel open to assess bottom lines or detect openings is important.

The Jaishankar-Wang Yi joint statement refers pro forma to the formula of “not allowing differences to become disputes”, even when a dangerous dispute has arisen in Ladakh because of differences. Accepting “that the current situation in the border areas is not in the interest of either side” acknowledges the dangers ahead, and hence the agreement that the border troops “should continue their dialogue, quickly disengage, maintain proper distance and ease tensions”. But then, several meetings of the corps commanders and at other levels have produced meagre results. For disengaging quickly, the differences in positions emerging from the several rounds of talks have to be quickly overcome. A separate Chinese statement after the FM-level talks giving a “stern” warning to India is not a good signal.

Withdrawing from held positions will be a very difficult call. Chinese troops must withdraw from the sensitive Depsang area and to Finger 8 at Pangong Tso. Can we withdraw from the Kailash Range heights, knowing that once we do so, retaking them would be impossible should the Chinese capture them afterwards. The imprecise phrase “proper distance” is liable to be interpreted differently.

To say that all the existing border peace and tranquillity agreements and protocols should be respected and any action that could escalate matters avoided, is neither here not there as China has violated all these agreements. Continuing communication through the special representative mechanism and the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination is to keep the dialogue doors open without any fresh commitment. Expediting “work to conclude new confidence building measures” raises the question whether, without resolving underlying issues, new ones can work. China seeks to put curbs on development of border infrastructure by India through new CBMs.

The joint statement is structured around disengagement and de-escalation, with no reference to restoring the status quo ante. In recent weeks Indian statements have also ceased to mention this because the immediate need is to prevent an eruption of hostilities because of the close proximity of the amassed troops. The restoration of status quo ante will depend on very complex negotiations thereafter, with uncertain results.

It would appear that for their own reasons India and China do not want to break off dialogue and buy some more time for the dynamics of the situation to become clearer and enable a better assessment of intentions and bottom lines. However, the very complex situation provides no easy way out to either side. With India’s distrust of China becoming profound, the downward slide in ties will continue.