Chinese will like to keep border unsettled, till the time the political cost of not settling it, becomes higher than doing so

by Major General S B Asthana (Retd)

Existing Status of Standoff

The 11th round of India-China corps commanders' meeting has ended with good optics and pleasantly worded PIB release, with no concrete agreement (if any) disseminated so far.

After disengagement of troops in eastern Ladakh from north and south of Pangong Tso, no disengagement in other areas including Depsang plains, Gogra, Hot Spring, Demchok, and no further de-escalation, was well predicted by most analysts.

In the “Two Session” press conference last month, China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi suggested China and India to strengthen cooperation instead of harbouring suspicion at each other and earlier indicated to get back to business as usual, side-lining the border/LAC issue. The Indian Foreign Ministry seems to be conveying that disengagement at all friction points leading to de-escalation, peace and tranquillity on borders are pre-requisites to progressing smooth bilateral ties.

This rightful Indian stance is adversely affected by indicators like the likelihood of Indian permission for progress in 45 Chinese projects and 300 Crore contracts to Huawei. This is not in sync with the stance conveyed. The standoff is therefore yet to be resolved. as Indian Army Chief General Naravane puts it “the threat has only abated and it has not gone away altogether”, although domestic events in both countries have dimmed the spotlight on borders.

What Was China Trying?

Chinese political aim was and continues to be China-centric Asia and forcing Indian subordination, a necessity to achieve it. This aim could not be achieved despite prolonged standoff in Ladakh so far, but will remain unchanged, even in future. Chinese strategic aim to control eastern Ladakh was to provide depth to its National Highway G-219, Karakoram Pass and China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), redraw Line of Actual Control (LAC) as per its perception and negotiate border on its terms thereafter.

The Indian aim has been to get Chinese back to pre-standoff positions as of April 2020 in all friction points, not to concede unilateral change of LAC, and pursue talks towards its demarcation, hoping to lead to border resolution. With current disengagement, status quo stands achieved in areas north and south of Pangong Tso, at the cost of losing the crucial leverage of giving up occupation of certain heights on Kailash range and north of Pangong Tso, prior to Chinese vacation of ‘Other Areas’. Pursuing disengagement and de-escalation in remaining areas will be an uphill task due to shortage of leverages, given Chinese past track record of junking agreements at will.

China, having marched in areas, where it was not supposed to be, junking all Confidence Building Measures (CBMs), as part of overall ‘Incremental Encroachment Strategy’, exploiting first-mover advantage, makes unfair use of Indian engagement in combating COVID-19 pandemic. China soon found itself handicapped by strong Indian response, resistance and resolve, with proactive actions resulting newly-created vulnerabilities to Maldo Garrison and its launch pad, South of Pangong Tso.

Despite disengagement in Pangong Tso area, Chinese discomfort remains due to Indian dispositions in Sub Sector North including Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO as well as infrastructure development including DSDBO road. This remains a threat to crucial Tibet-Xinjiang-Pakistan connectivity.

Why Speedy Partial Disengagement?

After getting locked in the standoff for so long, both countries realized that with such large troop density on both sides, prolonging it further will not achieve any meaningful gains. Escalation to conflict or further standoff was proving costly to both, in terms of human and financial cost.

A very heavy troop concentration within striking distance was prone to accidental triggering of conflict, which both countries wanted to avoid. Disengagement per se, therefore, was certainly a preferred option for both countries but its sequencing deserves an analysis.

The domestic compulsion of getting into “Two Session 2021” with vulnerable Maldo Garrison was also mounting for China. Under such circumstances, a disengagement agreement involving Indians' vacation of heights south and north of Pangong Tso at the cost of pulling back from finger areas to its original positions, with its road intact, gave a much-desired face-saver to China and it disengaged with unprecedented speed in Pangong Tso area.

The Two Narratives!

Both countries justify disengagement process favourable to them although disengagement is yet to be done at many friction points. The Chinese narrative to its population up to “Two Session” has been that it has got Indians down from heights north and south of Pangong Tso and ensured no Indian presence from Finger 4 to Finger 8, no patrolling by declaring it as buffer zone, while retaining its presence in Depsang plains, Gogra, Hot Spring and Demchok areas. It can, therefore, claim to have launched a successful incremental encroachment operation. The explainers of Chinese narrative will find it difficult to explain their gain by moving forward from Finger 8 to Finger 4 and then speedily withdrawing back to the same location

The Indian narrative to its critiques is that it has been able to successfully push Chinese back to status quo ante positions as existed pre standoff in Pangong Tso area, the stance which India maintained throughout.

Amongst rest areas, like Gogra, Hot Spring and Demchok, it is work in progress.

Depsang is a legacy issue of decades, where patrolling points to limit ITBP/ Army patrols were designated to avoid confrontation. India can draw solace from the fact that, while it is being denied patrolling to the patrol points on Depsang Plateau East of the area bottleneck inside the Raki Nallah, it has also denied PLA patrols movement West of Bottleneck, to Chinese claimed area close to Burtse.

Future Options With India

The actual worth of disengagement agreement is yet to be seen in light of trust deficit and past track record of Chinese in junking Agreements, when it suits them, as the LAC, as well as border, remains un-demarcated between both countries.

The relative calmness along LAC doesn’t mean a smooth ride ahead.

With both armies preparing for annual summer exercises and stepping up deployment along LAC in high altitude region, in coming weeks, in addition to the troop deployment in ‘Other Areas’ doesn’t promise de-escalation. The Indian forces and the country has given a befitting reply to Chinese misadventure, and will do so each time, with added confidence and experience of 2020.

Indian aim should be not to concede Chinese attempt to redraw LAC as LAC-2020. In light of no major breakthrough in 22nd round of China-India border talks, I do not expect any worthwhile development on delineation, delimitation for demarcation of LAC, which, is necessary to prevent repeated standoffs, even if the present one sees some resolution. Chinese will like to keep border unsettled, till the time the political cost of not settling it, becomes higher than doing so, for Chinese Communist Party.

India must be prepared for ‘Two Front War’ as a worst-case scenario, and continue capacity building in all domains, including maritime arena. Ongoing infrastructure development along borders should lead to settling of locals in villages along LAC with better facilities, to ward off Chinese design of developing hundreds of new villages along LAC.

Strategic partnerships with like-minded democracies and collective naval posturing to create multifront situation for China are efforts in right direction. There is a need for alternative supply chain, trade and technological ecosystem, independent of China for which some initial steps taken by Quad countries need to be pursued on strategic plane.