Indian and Chinese armoured columns pulling back from Rechin La on the southern side of Pangong Tso Wednesday

New Delhi: A gruelling winter deployment resulting in higher Chinese casualties than Indian, Beijing’s understanding that New Delhi is not backing down, coupled with the upcoming 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party in July — these are believed to be the reasons why China finally came around to disengaging at Pangong Tso in Ladakh.

Government sources said the disengagement process, which began Wednesday, was not sudden but had actually been under discussion since September — the same month that the Indian and Chinese foreign and defence ministers met in Russia. Since then, the sources added, there had been several rounds of discussion during which both India and China eased their stands.

The proposal for a phased disengagement, sources said, actually came from the Chinese after a call was set up between National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and Chinese Foreign Minister and State Councillor Wang Yi in July. 

The call saw both sides agree to the “earliest complete disengagement of the troops along the LAC and de-escalation from India-China border areas for full restoration of peace and tranquillity”, for the first time after tensions erupted in Ladakh in April.

When External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar subsequently met his Chinese counterpart Wang on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) foreign ministers’ meeting in Moscow two months later, both sides agreed to a step-by-step plan on “disengagement, de-escalation and finally restoration of status quo”, sources said.

Union Defence Minister Rajnath Singh formally announced Thursday that India and China have agreed to disengage at Pangong Tso, one of the three flashpoint areas in the ongoing stand-off — the others are Gogra-Hot Springs and the crucial Depsang Plains. 

According to Singh, the agreement reached will see the Chinese soldiers retreat to east of Finger 8 on the northern bank of the Pangong Tso, which marks the Line of Actual Control (LAC). During the stand-off, the Chinese had moved to Finger 4. Indian troops will be based at their permanent base at Dhan Singh Thapa Post near Finger 3, he said, adding that a similar action will be taken by both sides in the South Bank area. 

Experts in defence and diplomacy have greeted the development with caution — noting that disengagement may be a tactical move by China in the face of its deteriorating relationship with the US, they said India should remain “vigilant”.

Breaking Stalemate

Over the course of the stand-off, India and China have conducted multiple rounds of talks at the military and diplomatic levels, but the stalemate, sources said, was finally tackled during the Corps Commander dialogue last month.

The stalemate was caused as India and China struggled to see eye-to-eye on how exactly to move forward with resolving the stand-off. In September, China asked India to withdraw from certain crucial heights on the southern banks of the Pangong Tso — heights Indian soldiers occupied in an operation on the intervening night of 29-30 August that took the People’s Liberation Army by surprise.

India, meanwhile, insisted on disengagement at all friction points in Ladakh. However, the Chinese were not open to withdrawing from Finger 4, which they had captured in May 2020. 

As the Chinese realised that India was not budging, sources said, China modified its proposal in October and brought in a plan for phased withdrawal. They said the PLA would withdraw from Finger 4 to Finger 5 and called for making Finger 4 a no-go area. This proposal, too, was rejected by India as it wanted the PLA to move behind Finger 8.

With the icy-cold Ladakh winter bringing temperatures as low as minus 20 degrees Celsius in November, China agreed to go behind Finger 8, sources said.

According to the proposal agreed to by both sides, the Chinese were to move back beyond Finger 8 and also remove all tents and observation posts set up in an 8-km area. Similarly, Indian troops were to move back to the Dhan Singh Thapa post, which is between Finger 2 and Finger 3. After this broader agreement, the talks again went into a stalemate, and the next round of Corps Commander dialogue was not held until 24 January. In the interim, India and China withdrew over 10,000 troops each from depth areas as part of a joint understanding while keeping soldiers untouched in forward locations.

Sources refused to get into the reasons for the stalemate. On 24 January, after talks lasting 16-and-a-half hours, the stalemate ended and both sides decided to go ahead with the disengagement.

Multiple talks were held at the local commanders level, sources said, to work out the nitty gritty of disengagement, which began Wednesday.

The row at the two other points — Gogra-Hot Springs and Depsang Plains — will take time to resolve, sources added.

Reasons For Disengagement

Indian government sources said the Chinese had been keen to disengage before the winter set in, but India did not play ball.

According to them, Chinese troops were being posted to such forward locations for the first time and, contrary to belief that they were well-settled, the medical casualties were higher. The current stand-off marks the first time that India and China have deployed soldiers in forward areas in Ladakh during the region’s bitter winter.

Sources said the Indian operation in August had surprised the Chinese and they realised that India was not backing down and this face-off could last much longer than they had calculated.

Also on the Chinese mind, sources said, was the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party in July and the “image President Xi Jinping wanted to portray”.

Xi, sources added, could not have a situation where the Chinese celebrated even as the stand-off with India continued.

‘India Should Stay Vigilant’

M. Taylor Fravel, an eminent China scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), said the two sides have been working towards this disengagement for quite some time.

“Although it remains early days, my view is that China is responding to the significant deterioration of US-China relations in the past year, and the way in which its international image has suffered in many countries, at a time when the party will launch the 14th five-year plan that is critical to its development goals,” Fravel added.

The 14th five-year plan (2021-2025) was unveiled by Xi in October 2020 at the fifth Plenum of the 19th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. 

“The success of this plan requires China’s greater engagement with the world and thus greater stability and fewer points of friction with other states,” he said. “Thus, China seeks to prevent any further deterioration in ties with India and to prevent the risk of escalation that might upset its development plans.” 

Former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal said India should remain vigilant, noting that disengagement at Pangong Tso can resolve the present stand-off, but the fundamental challenge of defining the LAC remains. 

“This is a period of interregnum because uncertainty in bilateral relations continues to prevail… Xi has a ‘certain vision’ of the world and he will continue to pursue it relentlessly,” he added. 

“The latest move can be seen as a tactical move because China’s relations with the US will deteriorate in the times to come. Signals from the Biden administration are not going in Beijing’s favour,” he said.

The US Department of Defence Wednesday announced the creation of a 15-member China Task Force to reassert its vision for the Indo-Pacific, which America believes China is “seeking to overturn”.

Jayadeva Ranade, former member of the National Security Advisory Board and an expert on China, welcomed the disengagement but remained sceptical of China.

“I don’t trust the Chinese and I am sure the government and the forces also don’t,” he said.

The withdrawal is not sudden and had been a matter of talks for some time, he added. One will have to wait and see the reaction in China to the disengagement process because “that will be a factor in how China carries the process forward”, he said.

One main reason for Chinese disengagement is that Beijing never calculated that India will be willing to carry forward the stand-off for so long, Ranade added.