Even after 16 rounds of Corps Commander-level talks between Indian and Chinese delegations in Ladakh, the restoration of status quo that India has been seeking is nowhere in sight

New Delhi: The continuous dialogue between top Indian and Chinese military officers has no doubt resulted in calming down tempers but it is a far cry from the status quo that prevailed before May 2020, writes Abhishek Bhalla.

It is 16 rounds and counting for the Corps Commander-level talks between Indian and Chinese delegations in Ladakh, but the status quo ante as of April 2020 that India has been seeking is nowhere in sight.

On June 6, 2020, the Corps Commander-level meet took place for the first time to resolve the standoff and brewing tensions between the two nuclear powers.

A little over a week later, on June 15, India lost 20 of its soldiers in Galwan, in what appeared to be a medieval and barbaric assault from the Chinese using iron rods and weapons that resembled a hammer spiked with barbed wire.

The indications that these talks could be an eyewash were alarming.

But the dialogue continued, and the next seven rounds of military commander talks took place within the next six months. The continuous dialogue has no doubt resulted in calming down tempers. However, it appears to be only a temporary truce, and a far cry from the restoration of status quo that India has sought.

Beyond a point, one cannot expect military commanders on the ground to find a solution to border disputes. This is something that can be done at the diplomatic and political level. Militaries are not the best at negotiating. So even if these meetings happen in a cordial manner, showing basic courtesy and hospitality by either side, at the back of their minds they know, ‘we are not going to budge.’

That status quo ante as of April 2020 hasn’t been restored simply means the situation is far from normal.

Besides enhanced deployments from both sides, Indian patrols are still not allowed till places they could frequent before tensions began in early May 2020.

While a piecemeal disengagement has happened in friction points like Galwan, Pangong Tso and Gogra, Hot Springs still needs to be fully resolved, as is the larger de-escalation across eastern Ladakh, including places like Depsang and Demchock where a massive military build-up continues.

This is something even former Army Chief Gen MM Naravane had touched upon in his annual press conference in January this year when he was still in office.

A continuous dialogue with China has resulted in a partial disengagement of Indian and Chinese troops in friction areas, but threat perception persists and the Indian Army is prepared to stay there for as long as required, he had commented. “Force levels, in areas where dis-engagement is yet to take place, have been adequately enhanced,” he said.

As part of a disengagement strategy, buffer zones have been created in friction points including Pangong Lake and Gogra and Hot Springs and Galwan, but a final resolution to break the deadlock hasn't happened.

However, China remains rigid in its stance on Depsang and Demchok. This is one of the key reasons why the Chinese have not even discussed other areas in eastern Ladakh apart from the ones that emerged as friction points during the military standoff last year.

The Indian defence ministry had called China's action to change status quo in several areas "provocative" in its year end review of 2021.

"Unilateral and provocative actions by the Chinese to change the status quo by force, in more than one area on the Line of Actual Control has been responded in adequate measure," the Ministry of Defence had said.

Since the tensions started last May in Ladakh, there has been an enhanced troop deployment of more than 50,000 in the sector. Not just Ladakh, China has been making aggressive moves in the Eastern sector bordering Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim in the last year.

Even though the Chinese have pulled back as part of the disengagement process, the infrastructure and build-up on their side suggests this is a permanent deployment.

A recent case in point being much talked about is the Chinese construction of a bridge connecting north and south banks of the Pangong Lake on the Chinese side, mere metres away from India’s claim of the Line of Actual Control.

The bridge connects north and south banks of Pangong Lake, allowing the Chinese army quick access to both sides. India had occupied key heights on the Kailash range on the southern bank in August 2020 giving its troops a strategic advantage as they overlooked the Chinese Moldo garrison. The bridge will facilitate quick induction as it will cut down distance and time to reach the contested areas at Pangong Lake and will also connect the two banks allowing Chinese forces easy access on either side to combat any threat.

Another striking example of the Chinese military plan is how it has ramped up its air force facilities by constructing new or expanding its existing air bases in areas bordering India. At least 16 locations, including those close to Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh and even opposite the Indian state of Uttarakhand, not too far away from the India-Nepal-Tibet tri-junction, have been identified in intelligence reports. Most of these are in the Xinjiang province bordering Ladakh in India.

Two winters have passed with enhanced troop deployment of nearly 50,000 facing the harsh weather at icy heights. With the way things are going, this seems like the new normal. There are no signs of troop deployment being reduced even this winter.

In this scenario, these meetings mean little in terms of a return to status quo that India wants, but yes, at least they are ensuring there are no flare-ups like the ones in 2020, when the two nations were on the brink of war.