With spring in sight, the thaw in eastern Ladakh, where the Indian and Chinese armies have been locked in a tense standoff since early May last year, finally seems to have begun. The stone-throwing and fist-fighting between troops of the two armies on the northern bank of Pangong Lake in May 2020 were early signs that trouble was brewing in the freezing, inhospitable high reaches of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that separates India and China. The situation escalated drastically by mid-June, when the bloodiest battle at the LAC since 1967 broke out in the Galwan Valley. Both sides suffered casualties. A dangerous and volatile situation has prevailed at the LAC ever since, with troops and heavy weaponry of the opposing armies stacked up in large numbers in uncomfortably close and perilous proximity to each other. Both armies stationed tens of thousands of soldiers backed by artillery, tanks and fighter jets along the LAC.
Things reached such a pass that as Lieutenant General Y. K. Joshi, the chief of the Northern Command of the Indian Army revealed on 17 February, “We were on the edge, absolutely on the brink... war was actually averted”. He elaborated that there were situations after Indian troops surprised the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) by occupying the Kailash range heights to the south of Pangong Lake on August 29-30 that “could have blown up into an armed conflict. Those were very tense and challenging moments for us”.The advent of the icy winter during which temperatures of minus 20°C are commonplace in the area exacerbated the situation. That, along with the reality that neither India nor China actually preferred war, as was evident from the fact that both sides meticulously avoided any further human casualties after the Galwan clashes of June 2020, meant that sincere and serious, albeit labored, efforts were initiated by both sides to resolve the crisis. The two countries held several rounds of military and diplomatic-level talks, the last of which, the 9th round of the China-India Corps Commander-level talks held on January 24, yielded an agreement on withdrawal from the Pangong Lake.
Senior Colonel Wu Qian, a spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of National Defense, in a written statement on 10 February announced that in accordance with the consensus reached at the 9th round of the Commander-level talks between China and India, “The Chinese and Indian frontline troops at the southern and northern bank of the Pangong Tso Lake start synchronised and organised disengagement from February 10”. Ground-level commanders from both sides held a meeting over the pullback on February 9 to tie up details of on-ground disengagement and another meeting between them was held on February 10 to streamline the disengagement process.
The following day, Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh told his country’s parliament that India and China will remove forward deployments from Pangong Lake in a “phased, coordinated and verified manner”, and that the “Chinese side will keep its troop presence in the northern bank area to east of Finger 8”. India claims all 8 fingers (mountainous spurs) at Pangong Lake but its military presence extends up to Finger 3. The area between Fingers 4 and 8 was traditionally patrolled by both sides till the situation escalated in May when Chinese soldiers occupied the area between Fingers 4 and 8. India responded in August by occupying at least three uninhabited mountaintops on the lake’s southern bank, at which time the two sides fired warning shots for the first time in 45 years. The Indian occupation of these three heights gave it significant tactical advantages, and it consequently raised the specter of the full-scale military conflict that Lieutenant General Y. K. Joshi has alluded to above.
Singh added in his address to the Indian parliament that “Reciprocally, the Indian troops will be based at their permanent base” near Finger 3, and that “A similar action would be taken in the south bank area by both sides”. He further informed that structures built by both sides since April 2020 on both banks will be removed and landforms restored, and that the two sides had also agreed on a “temporary moratorium on military activities” on the lake’s northern bank. He added that “Patrolling will be resumed only when both sides reach an agreement in diplomatic and military talks that would be held subsequently”. Singh did qualify, however, that some other outstanding issues along the LAC that remained to be addressed, including at Hot Springs, Gogra and Depsang, would only be taken up by Indian and Chinese negotiators within 48 hours of the completion of the agreed upon Pangong Lake disengagement.
Rajnath Singh pointed out that Chinese actions since last year had seriously disturbed peace and tranquility at the LAC, and drew attention to the continued communications with China at various levels since September 2020 in order to effect disengagement and maintain status quo. Reports in the media quoting sources in the Indian government have underlined that the disengagement process had actually been under discussion since the Indian and Chinese foreign and defense ministers met in Russia in September 2020. The proposal for a phased disengagement had come even earlier from the Chinese side during a telephone call between India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and the Chinese Foreign Minister and State Councillor Wang Yi in July 2020. When India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar subsequently met his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) foreign ministers’ meeting in Moscow two months later, both sides agreed to a step-by-step plan on “disengagement, de-escalation and finally restoration of status quo”.
The withdrawal from Pangong Lake commenced on schedule, and as per all accounts it has been proceeding smoothly and is on track. Both sides have evacuated their mechanized units, including tanks and infantry fighting vehicles, from the front and the infantry is also being withdrawn. The two sides are also closely monitoring and verifying the status of each other’s withdrawal. The Indian Army on 15 February released five short videos showing Chinese troops and equipment withdrawing from Pangong Lake. These videos show the Chinese troops using excavators and their bare hands to demolish tents, military bunkers and temporary fortifications built in the area. Among the major structures destroyed by the Chinese troops were their jetty at Finger 5 on the northern bank, as well as a helipad and a makeshift hospital. Sim Tack, a military analyst at the Belgium-based security analysis firm Force Analysis, confirmed on the basis of satellite images that the Chinese troops had actually dismantled the structures. An Indian official in New Delhi, meanwhile, told Reuters that “Similar action is happening from our side also”. The withdrawal on both the northern and southern shores of Pangong Lake is expected to be completed by 20 February.As the stronger military power that had intruded into positions along the LAC that are claimed by India, the question of why China had agreed to a withdrawal after ten long months of obstinacy has been the subject of a healthy debate. As had been concluded in the EFSAS Study Paper titled The Doklam Standoff: A template for countering Chinese belligerence and expansionism, it had been India’s firm resolve on the ground backed by potent and demonstrated military capabilities that had forced China to negotiate in Doklam in 2017. The situation was no different in 2020-21. The primary reason why China agreed to withdraw in Pangong Lake was the firmness it encountered from India in its quest to protect its territory from China’s expansionist designs. Beijing had not imagined that India would be willing to sustain the stand-off for so long.
India’s imaginative, bold and unanticipated counter to the Chinese belligerence on the northern bank of Pangong Lake also played a significant role. By occupying the Kailash range heights on the southern bank in August 2020, India not only effectively neutralized the advantage that the Chinese had till then, but it also bought itself a strong new bargaining position. As Deepak Sinha, a retired Indian Army Brigadier, underlined, India’s capture of strategic heights on the southern banks of Pangong Lake was the answer to resolving the disagreement in the Depsang plains as the heights collectively known as the Kailash range overlook sensitive Chinese military installations and positions in the area. Control over them gave India leverage against Beijing that it could use in the negotiations.
In addition to these factors, both India and China were aware that prolongation of the standoff was hurting both countries. As Lieutenant General D.S. Hooda, another former chief of the Indian Army’s Northern Command, succinctly summarized, “The prospects of continuing tensions along an undemarcated LAC, the strong Indian military response, the enormous difficulty in maintaining soldiers in these extreme conditions, the deterioration in bilateral ties, the geopolitical alignments against China would have all played a role in the Chinese decision to come to an agreement to resolve the ongoing standoff”.
An aspect of the withdrawal agreement that some Indian experts have found fault with is that it deals only with Pangong Lake to the exclusion of the other friction areas at the LAC such as Hot Springs, Gogra and Depsang. Brigadier Sinha, for example, said, “My problem is, why has India mixed up the withdrawal from the Kailash range with the withdrawal from Pangong lake? The Kailash range covers the entire Ladakh and they are firmly in our territory beyond any dispute, so why withdraw from there? India now has no leverage over the Chinese over what they decide to do in Depsang, Hot Springs and Gogra”.
Lieutenant General Hooda, however, asserted that such criticism was not really justified. India, he pointed out, had sought for both sides to return to the status quo of April last year, before the initial border flare-up in May. India had occupied the Kailash range heights after April. Hooda added, “When you are negotiating, you can’t say ‘you go back, we won’t". Describing the disengagement process at Pangong Lake as fair and “equal for both sides”, he stressed that the agreement was “a significant step toward comprehensive disengagement and finding some solution to the existing issues between the two countries”.
The disengagement on the Pangong Lake is certainly a cause for optimism and hope, but equally unquestionable is the reality that as a result of the Chinese belligerence, the India-China relationship has changed dramatically for the worse over the past year. A deep distrust and suspicion of China has enveloped the Indian psyche. Harsh Pant of the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) think tank in New Delhi believes that “The biggest challenge is that there is no trust now and that trust deficit will define future engagement”. Pant is also convinced that “If anything, this crisis with China has reinforced that India needs to leverage its partnership with like-minded countries like the US much more robustly”.
As welcome as the ongoing disengagement is, both India and China need to view it merely as a stepping stone to a more comprehensive settlement of the LAC, especially since both countries have over the last few months confronted the potential horrors that not doing so could lead to.