Disengagement 2.0 between China and India in eastern Ladakh, coincidentally reported a day after the Bihar Assembly election results, mentions a proposal of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to pull back from Finger 4 to Finger 8 (mountain spurs), located on the north bank of Pangong Tso, and withdrawal of troops by Beijing and New Delhi to their original positions on the south bank.

According to the proposal, put forward after South Xinjiang Military Region Commander Major General Liu Lin met Leh-based XIV Corps Commander Lieutenant General PGK Menon during the eighth round of dialogue in Chushul on November 6, both China and India will first disengage on north Pangong Lake and then pull back their soldiers, artillery and tanks on the south bank in the final phase. 

However, all the moves in this Chinese Chequers are to Beijing’s advantage: a temporary demilitarised zone (DMZ), or buffer zone, that falls entirely on the Indian side of the Line of Actual control (LAC) in north Pangong Tso, and no mention of restoration of status quo in the Depsang Plains following the 16-18 km PLA intrusion.

During the earlier seven rounds of Commander-level talks, China had dug heels over its demand that Indian troops withdraw from the strategic heights of Rechin La, Gurung Hill and Magar Hill—on the south bank—which overlooked China’s Moldo Garrison and the Spanggur Gap. Therefore, the whole offer comes with a rider: India should agree to withdraw from the strategic heights on the south bank of the lake.

If India accepts the proposal, which also mentions that India should withdraw till the Dhan Singh Thapa post, located between Fingers 2 and 3, it stands to lose more than 8 km of territory on its side of the LAC. India had always patrolled till Finger 8 and claimed it as the LAC on the north bank of the lake until China intruded 8 km into the Indian side from the west in May. Though India has not agreed to China’s proposal, it has few options with an aggressive Beijing refusing to budge and the onset of the inclement weather and freezing temperatures.

Creation of buffer zones is always tricky when proposed by a more militarily powerful and strategically placed adversary. The maths is simple. For example, country X intrudes 10 km inside country Y’s territory from point Z. Subsequently, X proposes a buffer zone, or DMZ, of 3 km each on either side of point Z to de-escalate the conflict. If country Y agrees to the proposal, it loses 7 km (3 km in the buffer zone created by X plus the 4 km occupied by it).

The tricky maths in DMZ was evident during the first disengagement process in the Chinese-occupied Hot Springs and Galwan River Valley. India and China had agreed to creation of a buffer zone of one km each in the Hot Springs, according to Colonel (retired) Ajai Shukla. The 2-km buffer zone, roughly along the Chang Chenmo River, was “to China’s advantage. People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers, who have intruded 3-4 km across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) into Indian territory near Patrolling Point 15 (PP-15), and about 2 km near PP-17A, will only be required to pull back 1 km”, he reported citing government sources.

“That means, even after the disengagement, the PLA will remain 2-3 km on the Indian side of the LAC near PP-15 and, at least, one km inside Indian territory near PP-17A. Effectively, the demilitarised buffer zone will lie entirely in Indian territory and the LAC would shift by 1-3 km into India,” Colonel Shukla wrote.

In the Galwan Valley too, the LAC “was effectively shifted by a kilometre (km) into India”. “The terms of disengagement, negotiated on June 30 between senior military commanders from both sides, regard the LAC as running through the so-called Y-Nallah Junction. This is one km inside India when compared with the LAC’s historical alignment next to Patrolling Point 14 (PP-14). The area in which PP-14 is located—and which the Indian Army has patrolled for decades—now effectively falls inside China’s buffer zone.”

Another glaring point in the disengagement process is the passing reference to the strategically located Depsang Plains—the scene of major stand-offs in 2013, 2015 and this year—where the PLA had intruded 16-18 km into the Indian side of the LAC, and no mention of restoration of April status quo. Quoting a source, The Times of India reported: “Depsang is an old problem. The first priority is the flashpoints in the Pangong Tso-Chushul area.”

The Depsang Plains, which comes under the Sub-Sector North area, is militarily and strategically important to both India and China. With Karakoram Pass to its north, Aksai Chin to its east and the Rimo Glacier to its west, the Depsang Plains is close to the airstrip of Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO). Thousands of PLA troops are deployed at a place call Y-junction, or Bottleneck, which is approximately 30 km south-east from the airstrip. The Chinese incursion has blocked India from patrolling PP 11, PP12, PP12 A and PP 13. The PLA aims to take control of the Darbuk-Shyok-DBO Road, and the Saser La pass, which would make the Siachen Glacier inaccessible for India and link Pakistan and China in Ladakh.

Trust is the fulcrum on which a disengagement, de-escalation or peace process turns and moves forward. However, going by India’s experience with China in the eastern Ladakh imbroglio and the earlier clashes along the LAC, the trust factor is seriously lacking. The Galwan Valley clash in June and the Chinese bid to intrude inside the south bank of Pangong Lake in August have razed hopes of building trust.

The lack of trust and Chinese betrayal was jarringly visible in the 2017 Doklam crisis. India pulled back it troops after the crisis but China only withdrew from the tri-junction and occupied the whole of Doklam Plateau, altered the status quo, and built a complete military structure, infrastructure and helipads one year later. According to satellite imagery analysed by media in October 2018, on the plateau, India’s boundary with Bhutan is the de facto boundary with China.

The Doklam crisis was the trigger for the rapid construction of air bases, air defence positions, helipads and military structures along the LAC. According to the report ‘A Military Drive Spells Out China’s Intent Along the Indian Border, prepared by American geopolitical intelligence platform Stratfor, “Indian and Chinese forces clashed in the Doklam region in June 2017. Since then, China has started constructing, at least, 13 entirely new military positions near its borders with India, including three air bases, five permanent air defence positions and five heliports.”

The frenetic pace of Chinese construction along the LAC is similar to its strategy in the South China Sea, where it has built artificial islands spreading to more than 3,000 acres equipped with port facilities, runways and fuel and weapons bunkers to counter claims of countries like Malaysia, Vietnam and Philippines and prevent any possible US attack. The rapid build-up of Chinese military infrastructure along the LAC aims to pre-empt an Indian military response in future.

Considering the frequent Chinese back-stabbing after disengagement talks and the dangerous construction of military structures and infrastructure along the LAC, New Delhi should be extremely cautious and alert about Disengagement 2.0.