Describing the disengagement of Chinese and Indian troops at Pangong Tso in Ladakh as “a win-win situation… a very good outcome” where “both sides should feel they have achieved something,” Army chief General MM Naravane Wednesday said “we have our strategies in place” to resolve “some issues that remain such as the area of Depsang… and pending issues in other areas along our northern borders”.

Acknowledging there is a “trust deficit” between the two sides, General Naravane said: “We still have a long way to go. We now have to move on to the stage of de-escalation. And after that, moving back of the troops and the de-induction of the troops which went to the higher reaches… We have to be wary… we will be very cautious… there is a trust deficit… unless that trust deficit is removed, we will, of course, continue to be wary, keep watching whatever movements happen on either side of the LAC. But I think at the end of the day, we have achieved a lot.”

He made these remarks while responding to questions during a webinar organised by the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF).

The Army chief said China’s “habit of creeping power” and its strategy in the South China Sea, of achieving its objectives without firing shots, would not work with India.

“China has been in the habit of creeping power, making very small, incremental changes wherein each change by itself was not very big or worthy of a very strong reaction. And because of these small, incremental moves which were never contested, it has been able to achieve its aims without firing a shot or without any loss of life. And what has happened in the South China Sea is a very glaring example of that. I think more than anything else, what we have achieved is to show that this strategy will not work with us. And every move will be met resolutely,” he said.

Asked what leverage India had to negotiate with the Chinese especially on Depsang Plains after vacating the heights south of Pangong Tso – on the Depsang Plains in the far north, close to the strategic Indian base at Daulat Beg Oldie near the Karakoram Pass, Chinese troops have been blocking Indian soldiers at a place called the Bottleneck, preventing them from accessing their traditional patrolling points – the Army chief said: “Going forward, there are some issues that remain such as Depsang. There are pending issues in eastern Ladakh and in other areas along our northern borders. But we have our strategies in place for that. Do we have anything to negotiate in the future? Yes, definitely. But I would not like to say what those strategies would be to further progress our negotiations to get a favourable outcome.”

To a query on whether there was a threat of China taking the heights that India had vacated, he said: “The entire disengagement agreement, or any other agreement, is premised on the fact that it will be observed in letter and spirit. We will trust, but we will verify. We have put our systems in place to make sure that there is no re-occupation of these heights. We can only hope that PLA and China adhere to this agreement in toto.”

He said the disengagement at Pangong Tso was achieved because of the “whole-of-government” approach in which negotiations were made at political, diplomatic and military levels.

On the question of China opening a two-front war against India in collusion with Pakistan, General Naravane said: “There were no overt signs of any such collusion. Whatever they were doing, they continued doing. There were no large-scale mobilisations or any such activity which would be suggestive of any kind of help being given by one to the other.”

He, however, said that in the military’s long term strategy, Indian Army factors a two-and-a-half front war, with the half being internal security.

“These are threats in being. Whether they manifest or not, only time will tell. With the whole-of-government approach, such a worst case scenario should not be unfolding. But as a military, we are prepared,” he said.

Speaking on the internal security situation in the North-East, the Army chief said China had created an environment of confrontation and mutual distrust in India’s neighbourhood.

“The internal dynamics in the North-East are intricately linked to the regional security construct. This is characterised by rising Chinese belligerence in the Indo-Pacific, its hostility towards weaker nations and its relentless drive to create regional dependencies through debt traps like the Belt and Road Initiative. Also, the resultant Sino-US rivalry has created regional imbalances and instability. The increasing footprints of China in India’s neighbourhood and its attempt to unilaterally alter the status quo along our disputed borders have created an environment of confrontation and mutual distrust,” he said.

The Army chief suggested that unsettled borders with China had also increased India’s challenge of balancing technology with boots on the ground.

“Certain developments on the northern border should cause us to ponder over another reality. And that is the nature of our unsettled borders. And consequently, challenges with regard to our territorial integrity and sovereignty. Without doubt, there are newer threats on the horizon. But the hard reality is that the legacy challenges have not quite gone away. In fact, they have only grown in scale and intensity. So while the Indian Army will continue to prepare and adapt to the future, the more proximate and real danger on our active borders cannot be ignored. The transition from a manpower intensive army to a technology-driven army is already underway. However, in spite of these changes, the requirement of boots on the ground will remain an operational imperative. As long as we have unsettled borders, we will need boots on the ground,” he said.

The China factor, he said, had also forced India to think about speeding up indigenisation of Indian defence requirements.

“The twin challenges of Covid and the belligerence of our adversary on our northern borders have brought to the fore the vulnerability of global supply chains, underscoring the critical need for self-reliance. Today, self-reliance in defence has become a strategic necessity. It is imperative for us to invest in building long-term indigenous capabilities for application across the entire spectrum of conflict,” he said.

“Considering the quick pace of defence modernisation of our adversaries, we cannot afford to be lagging behind. Our external dependence for weapons creates vulnerabilities during times of crisis. However, in the last few years, we have tried to reverse this trend by boosting indigenisation,” he said.