TOWARDS A THAW: Indian and Chinese troops and tanks disengage from the banks of the Pangong Lake in Ladakh, Feb. 2021

The troop numbers, Indian military officials say, are not significant, around a platoon, or 32 soldiers, in both locations to mirror Chinese deployments

More than two months after hundreds of Indian and Chinese soldiers, tanks and vehicles pulled back from the northern and southern banks of the Pangong Tso and the Kailash Range, an attenuated standoff looks set to continue through the summer. Indian and Chinese troops continue to confront each other at the Hot Springs and Gogra Post, along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh. The troop numbers, Indian military officials say, are not significant, around a platoon, or 32 soldiers, in both locations to mirror Chinese deployments. The deployments have continued since last June when both the Indian Army and the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) stepped back over 2 km each from their respective perceptions of the LAC. The PLA is currently around 700 metres inside India’s perception of the LAC in both locations.

The standoff points are leftovers from the disengagement between the two sides on February 10. A ministry of defence (MoD) statement then had stated that these would be “taken up at a later date”. So far, this hasn’t happened. An Indian military official said the Chinese, during talks, seemed reluctant to pull back from these positions. This, he said, appeared to have been prompted by India’s ambivalence on making the expected reciprocal gestures on other aspects of the standoff, including relaxing the ban on Chinese apps. China has deployed surface-to-air missile batteries along the LAC and created permanent infrastructure to base its troops on the Tibetan Plateau across the LAC.

On April 19, PLA Daily, the Chinese military mouthpiece, said that Beijing had deployed long-range precision-rocket artillery at an altitude of around 17,000 ft, which can only mean the LAC. New Delhi has indicated that without a complete Chinese pullback, it cannot be business as usual.

External affairs minister S. Jaishankar said on April 19 that the “Chinese, without provocation, brought an enormous force to the border.... This is not rocket science; you cannot disrupt peace and tranquillity at the border and carry on with the rest of the relationship. I have been saying it for the past [one] year and it has not changed”.

Since the February 10 disengagement, corps commanders on both sides have held two meetings to discuss further troop pullbacks. The tenth round of talks on February 20 verified the disengagements from the Pangong Lake and Kailash Range but could not reach an agreement on disengagements at the three friction points. The next round of talks held on April 10 did not see any breakthrough either. An external affairs ministry statement noted that the resolution of remaining issues related to disengagement along the LAC in eastern Ladakh was pending. ‘Completion of disengagement in other areas would pave the way for the two sides to consider de-escalation of forces and ensure full restoration of peace and tranquillity and enable progress in bilateral relations,’ the statement observed.

The ‘other areas’ is, of course, a reference to Hot Springs and Gogra Post. Both locations lie north of the Pangong Tso. There is also the matter of Depsang Plateau where Indian forces have been obstructed from reaching their patrol posts for several years now.

Military analysts believe the Chinese will not budge from their positions along the LAC at least before the mega centenary celebrations of the Chinese Communist Party beginning July 1. However, the Chinese recalcitrance over Hot Springs and Gogra Post continues to puzzle them. “The Chinese ought not to feel threatened in that area because we cannot bring in more troops or escalate the situation there,” says Lt General Rakesh Sharma, former GOC of the Leh-based 14 Corps. “The only way we can access those locations is through the Marsimik La, which is closed for the next six months or so.”

The Indian Army and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) have been patrolling 65 patrol points identified by the China Study Group (CSG) in the mid-1970s. The CSG is India’s topmost decision-making body on China. It had identified these points as the limits of India’s perception of the LAC. With the under-populated high-altitude desert vulnerable to Chinese ‘salami slicing’, these patrol points were meant to establish the Indian claim along the LAC.

As the standoff continues, think-tank Strategic Futures Group, which reports to the National Intelligence Council, the topmost US intelligence body, warned in its April 7 report of India and China slipping into a conflict that neither government wanted.

It was Hot Springs where 10 CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) personnel were ambushed and killed by the PLA on October 21, 1959. It was one of the minor clashes that would mark India and China’s slow descent into a border war three years later. But this scenario seems farfetched in 2021. The exact reasons for the PLA violating multiple agreements to maintain peace and tranquillity and moving in two divisions along the LAC last year remain unclear. But top decision-makers in New Delhi have known for several months now that it was not about a border conflict but Beijing’s muscle-flexing tic at its borders.

India and China have already pulled back from the brink once. On June 15, 2020, a fierce clash in the Galwan Valley resulted in the death of 20 Indian soldiers and five PLA soldiers. The Indian soldiers were verifying the pullback of Chinese soldiers about 1.5 km behind the LAC at various incursion points in Ladakh, including Gogra Post, Hot Springs, Galwan and Pangong Tso.

Disengagement is only the first of a three-stage process to reduce military tensions between India and China. De-escalation, where they move further away from the point of contact, is the next step before de-militarisation, the complete pull out of all troops from the theatre. Elements of the two divisions and tanks that New Delhi swiftly moved into Ladakh last May are still in the theatre of operations. Another major standoff can take place at just a few hours’ notice.