Even more worrying is the stalemate over the Depsang Plains

On the face of it, talks between the Indian Army and China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to de-escalate tensions along the LAC in eastern Ladakh seem to be progressing. A statement issued at the end of the 12th round of talks said it was “constructive,” enabled a “candid and in-depth exchange” of views and “further enhanced mutual understanding.” The two sides had agreed to resolve the remaining issues in an expeditious manner, in accordance with existing agreements and protocols, and maintain the momentum of dialogue and negotiations.

That a joint statement was issued is itself a step forward; the 11th round in April ended without one. However, there is little concrete to report on the ground. This is disappointing as 12 rounds of talks have taken place so far. In the run-up to the latest round, there were expectations that the two sides would reach an agreement on troop disengagement from Gogra and Hot Springs since the conflict here is relatively simpler and involves a smaller number of troops on both sides. However, no agreement was reached even over this “low-hanging fruit.”

Even more worrying is the stalemate over the Depsang Plains. Located close to India’s Daulat Beg Oldi post and the Karakoram Pass, Depsang is strategic territory. The airstrip at DBO is vital for India’s defence of the Siachen Glacier as it is from here that India lifts essential supplies to the glacier. Not only has the PLA been preventing Indian teams from patrolling here but also, it has stubbornly refused to discuss disengagement at Depsang. This leaves space for escalation of tensions here again.

Earlier this year, India pulled back from the heights of Kailash Range, which it had captured in August last year. This was to seal a narrow deal with the PLA for disengagement at Pangong Tso. Questions were then raised as to why the government surrendered its sole bargaining chip so early in the talks with the Chinese. China’s reluctance to make similar compromises now to enable agreements over Gogra-Hot Springs and Depsang confirm that India blundered badly by disengaging from the Kailash heights and giving in to the Chinese. Compromise is important to reach negotiated settlements but compromises that surrender too much and too early is hardly a smart strategy.

If the Modi government’s denial of Chinese occupation of Indian territory laid the foundation for India’s weak hand at the talks with China, the surrender of the Kailash heights haunts its efforts to reach a settlement with the PLA. India cannot afford such costly blunders.