India & China

Signs of a thaw between India and China

Print edition : March 12, 2021

Army officers of India and China holding a meeting at the Pangong lake region in Ladakh on the India-China border on February 10. Photo: INDIAN ARMY HANDOUT/AP

Indian and Chinese tanks disengaging from the banks of the Pangong lake area in eastern Ladakh on February 11. Photo: PTI

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh. He told Parliament that India had made it clear that “it would never accept the intrusion” into its territory. Photo: PTI

Gen. M.M. Naravane , Chief of Army Staff. He said that by attempting to change the status quo along the border, China had created mutual distrust and triggered confrontation. Photo: R.V. MOORTHY

The agreement between India and China to withdraw their troops deployed in the Pangong Tso area is a positive sign of the two sides returning to the pre-April 2020 positions in eastern Ladakh.

After a nine-month face-off, India and China announced in the second week of February that their troops deployed in the Pangong Tso area were being withdrawn in a “synchronised and organised” manner. The Chinese government was the first to announce the move on February 10. India’s Defence Minister Rajnath Singh made a statement on the subject in Parliament the next day. “Our sustained talks with China have led to an agreement on disengagement in the north and south banks of the Pangong lake,” he said.

Under the agreement, Indian troops will move back to the Dhan Singh Thapa military post on the Finger 3 mountain spur and China will withdraw its troops to their permanent base on Finger 8 located on the Sirijap plain around 10 kilometres away. The entire area in between will be a “buffer area” where patrolling by both sides will not be allowed for the time being. In the recent past, aggressive patrolling by the Indian Army and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in the area had led to unseemly incidents. Both sides do not want a repeat of the incident in Galwan last year which resulted in the loss of many lives.

Rajnath Singh told Parliament that India had made it clear that “it would never accept the intrusion” into its territory. “We have not lost anything,” the Defence Minister said. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had claimed in June last year that “no intrusions were made” by the Chinese army into territory controlled by India.

Congress criticism

After the Indian government announced the disengagement plan from the Pangong lake area, Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi alleged that “India had ceded land” to China. He said that India had given up Finger 4, where an Indian military post was located.
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Said Rahul Gandhi: “Finger 4 is our territory, that is where our post used to be. So now we have moved from Finger 4 to Finger 3. Why has the Indian Prime Minister given up Indian territory to the Chinese?” He also alleged that India had not got any concession from the Chinese side and pointed out that the PLA remained ensconced in the more strategic Depsang plains and Gogra Hot Springs area.

The Congress leader also criticised the withdrawal of soldiers from the “dominant positions” they occupied on the Kailash range. “Status quo ante has been given up. Kailash has been given back and nothing has happened on the key areas which China wants—like the Depsang plains,” the Congress leader said. “The Prime Minister is a coward who cannot stand up to the Chinese.”

Former Defence Minister A.K. Antony backed Rahul Gandhi’s stance. Speaking to the media, he welcomed the disengagement of forces as it would “reduce tensions” but at the same time characterised the withdrawal as “a surrender” as it amounted to surrender of territory controlled by India. “Disengagement and buffer zone means surrender of our land,” Antony stated. He demanded that the government give the people of India an assurance that the “status quo ante” that existed until April 2020 on the entire Line of Actual Control (LAC) would be preserved. Antony said that previous governments used to keep the opposition in the loop before taking such important decisions.

According to senior retired Indian Army officers, Indian troops used to regularly patrol between Finger 3 and Finger 8 until last year. The PLA also used to do the same. In fact, the PLA had constructed a road till Finger 4 and a naval radar base on Finger 6. Under the terms of the agreement, China has also given up its right to patrol the area between these two mountain spurs. It is therefore obvious that there was give and take on both sides.

Defence Ministry’s assertions

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) was quick to refute the opposition leader’s assertions, stating that the de-escalation on Pangong lake by both sides had enforced observance and respect of the LAC and had prevented any unilateral change of the status quo. The MoD said that any claim that the Indian territory extended up to Finger 4 was “categorically false” and that the permanent posts of both sides in the area “are long-standing and well established”. The MoD stated that India’s perception is that the LAC is at Finger 8 and not at Finger 4 and those questioning the de-escalation agreement were “disrespecting” the memory of the brave soldiers who had recently sacrificed their lives.
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The MoD statement, not very subtly invoking the nationalism card, says: “The effective safeguarding of our national interest and territory in the eastern Ladakh sector has taken place because the government has reposed full faith in the capabilities of our armed forces. Those who doubt the achievements made possible by the sacrifices of our military personnel are actually disrespecting them.”

Logistical nightmare

The two sides had agreed on a withdrawal formula from Pangong Tso after the last round of military talks held on January 24. “The move is in accordance with the consensus reached by both sides at the end of the 9th round of the China-India Corps commanders level meeting,” a statement from the Chinese military said. Both sides want to de-escalate, as keeping troops in the inhospitable altitude and climate is a logistical nightmare. Nearly a thousand Indian troops have died while serving in the Siachen glacier area since 1984.

Deploying troops in Siachen itself makes a big hole in the country’s defence budget. Maintaining troops in the harsh winter in eastern Ladakh is estimated to cost the government around Rs.100 crore every day. According to reports, both India and China have deployed around 50,000 troops each in eastern Ladakh. In the Pangong Tso area, the troops were positioned at an eyeball-to-eyeball distance, increasing the risks of another confrontation.

External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, meeting on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Moscow last September, had agreed on a five-point agenda for de-escalation. This included a speedy disengagement of troops and avoiding actions that could further escalate tensions. After the latest agreement, there are positive signs that the two sides will now return to the pre-April 2020 positions in eastern Ladakh. The process can be replicated, provided there is a will, all along the western sector of the LAC.

Joint statement

After the conclusion of the last military commanders’ talks, a joint statement on an “early disengagement” was issued. It said: “The two sides agreed to continue their effective efforts in ensuring the restraint of frontline troops, stabilise and control the situation along the Line of Actual Control in the western sector of the China-India border and jointly maintain peace and tranquillity.”

Within days of the announcement, both sides have withdrawn their heavy weaponry, including tanks and howitzers. The Indian Army has said that a complete withdrawal from the area will take a fortnight to complete. The last Indian soldiers to leave will be those occupying the vantage points overlooking Chinese military positions on the Kailash range located in the southern side of the lake over which the Indian Army had established control five months ago. The PLA will be withdrawing from the northern side of the lake which they have been occupying for the last nine months.
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The MoD has rejected accusations that it put Depsang, Gogra and Hot Springs on the back burner when it finalised the agreement on Pangong Tso. The MoD has said that it will be taking up “the outstanding issues” of Depsang, Hot Springs and Gogra “within 48 hours of the completion of the Pangong Tso disengagement”. There is no indication yet that the Chinese side is ready to discuss the issue with its Indian counterparts. According to Indian military experts, the Chinese side holds an advantageous position in Depsang and is reluctant to cede ground as yet.

The United States, which is the leader of the anti-China Quad military alliance in which India is an active member, has welcomed the efforts to de-escalate the situation in eastern Ladakh. A U.S. State Department official said that Washington would continue to monitor closely the situation on the ground as both sides work towards finding a peaceful resolution.

Army chief’s remarks

Even as the Indian and Chinese troops were withdrawing from the Pangong Tso area, the Indian Army chief, Gen. M.M. Naravane, said that by attempting to change the status quo along the border, China had created mutual distrust and triggered confrontation. Speaking at a seminar organised by the United Service Institution (USI), he said that China had vitiated the security environment in the Indo-Pacific by adopting an aggressive posture and a hostile attitude against the smaller countries in the region. The general also blamed China for its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), alleging that it was aimed at weakening the economies of its neighbours and making them dependent on Beijing.

Congressman Michael McCaul, the senior-most Republican in the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, expressed similar views. While welcoming the decision to de-escalate by both sides, he accused the Chinese Communist Party of indulging “in constant territorial aggression, from the East and South China Seas, to the waters of the Mekong and to the Himalayas”.

At a time when both sides were looking for a way to lower tensions and normalise relations, the Army chief’s remarks were untimely. He was echoing views similar to those emanating from top officials in the U.S. Defence and State Departments. All Asian countries, barring India and Japan, are part of China’s ambitious BRI and seem to be profiting by their membership in the grouping.

Another oft-repeated allegation is that Beijing is trying to hinder freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Beijing is as interested in ensuring freedom of navigation as the rest of the international community. The U.S. and its allies have been carrying out aggressive patrolling in the South China Sea ever since Washington started its military “pivot to the East”.

Gen. V.K. Singh’s view

While the current Army chief was trying to portray China as the aggressor, Gen. V.K Singh, former Indian Army chief and currently a Minister of State in the Central government, had a different take on the issue. Speaking to reporters in Madurai in the first week of February, he revealed that Indian troops had transgressed the LAC many more times than the Chinese side but the government in Delhi had chosen not to publicise it. “Let me assure you, if China has transgressed ten times, we must have done it at least 50 times,” V.K. Singh claimed. According to him, because the border has not been demarcated the two sides have different perceptions about the de facto border.
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The Union Minister said that when China transgressed the LAC in eastern Ladakh, India too responded in the same way. “Today, China is under pressure, since we are sitting [along the border] in places it does not like. China has realised that it is not easy to hit back at India any more,” he said.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman was quick to react to V.K. Singh’s statement. He said that the former Army chief’s statement proved that India had committed “frequent acts of trespass in the border area in an attempt to encroach”. He said it was an “unwitting confession by the Indian side”. He said that the “frequent acts of trespass” had created disputes and “was the root cause of tensions at the China-India border”. He also urged India to follow through on the “consensus, agreements and treaties” it had signed with China.

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