The conflict in Eastern Ladakh is slowly grinding toward a ‘no war, no peace’ situation—as it prevailed along the Line of Actual Control before April 2020—albeit with the addition of demilitarised buffer zones in intrusion areas . Just when defence analysts had concluded that the 16th round of Corps Commander level talks had ended in an impasse, it was announced in a surprise joint statement, “on 8th September 2022…Indian and Chinese troops in the area of Gogra-Hotsprings (PP-15) have begun to disengage in a coordinated and planned way.” The disengagement was completed on Tuesday.
This disengagement has come 13 months after the last disengagement effort at Patrolling Point (PP) 17/Gogra between 4 and 5 August 2021. It took four rounds of Corps Commander-level talks, two meetings of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs, a visit by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Delhi in March and a number of his meetings with Foreign Minister S Jaishankar on the sidelines of regional and international events to effect this limited progress.
The arduous process of disengagement
Considering that it took nine years to restore the status quo post the Sumdorong Chu confrontation of 1986-87 which began during Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure and ended under the Narasimha Rao government, it is clear that border negotiations with China are a long and arduous process. What then are the prospects of disengagement from more sensitive areas like Depsang Plains and Charding-Ninglung Nala to the south of Demchok?
In my view, diplomatic rhetoric notwithstanding, the volatile ‘no win’ situation prevailing for over two years in Eastern Ladakh has forced both countries to adopt a pragmatic approach toward disengagement and eventual de-escalation.
It is important to analyse the undeclared give and take with respect to the disengagement from PP15 to predict the future course of events.
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Disengagement at PP15
In the Chang Chenmo sector, where the LAC and the 1959 Claim Line coincide, there were no areas of differing perception as such. This sector is the gateway to the three southern approaches that lead to Aksai Chin. One approach to the east leads to Lanak La, through which the Tibet-Xinjiang highway passes. Two approaches are to the north via the Changlung Nala – PP17A and Kugrang River – PP15, which lead to the upper reaches of the Galwan River.
The Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) has its main post at Karam Singh Hill at the junction of Kugrang and Chang Chenmo rivers and an outpost at Gogra. PPs 15, 16 and 17A were patrolled but not physically held. Alarmed at the rapid development of roads by India to PP15, PP17A and towards Kongka La, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) intruded 3 to 4 km across the LAC between PPs 15 and 16 and PPs 17A and 17.
These intrusions were contested by Indian forces and a stalemate ensued. During negotiations, the Chinese gave a new version of the 1959 Claim Line up to their intrusions, running along the middle as opposed to the well-established LAC, which runs along the crest of the ridge to the north of the Kugrang River.
Disengagement with respect to the Changlung Nala intrusion took place between 4-5 August 2021, after the 12th round of military talks on 31 July. However, China refused to budge on the intrusion between PPs 15 and 16. It insisted on a buffer zone of 30-35 km along the entire length of the Kugrang River up to Karam Singh Hill.
This proposal was also mooted during Wang Yi’s visit to Delhi earlier this year in March. Our apprehension to cut off PLA forces in the Galwan Valley was the driver for this outlandish proposal.
As per my assessment after the current disengagement, India and China have agreed to a demilitarised buffer zone of 3-4 km between PPs 15 and 16. Since the PLA had the first mover advantage, the buffer zone is entirely on our side of the LAC. While the PLA has moved to its permanent post across the Jianan Pass/PP15, in all likelihood, India has established a new post on the edge of the buffer zone between PPs 15 and 16.
It is to the credit of our military and diplomatic negotiators that we have bargained the best solution for a disadvantageous military situation. PLA enjoyed the terrain advantage in both the intrusion areas in this sector. Due to terrain configuration, the Chanchenmo sector, dependent on a tenuous 100 km long road from Lukung which can be cut off at several places, is untenable in war unless disproportionate forces are deployed. Two small buffer zones are a small price to pay for our political and military lapses of not deploying forces before developing border infrastructure in sensitive areas.
It is pertinent to mention that post-1962, at no place has China physically attacked any of our ITBP or Army posts to carry out an intrusion. As a superior power, China cannot trigger a war with an uncertain outcome. Salami slicing and strategic embarrassment are due to India not establishing adequate number of Border Outposts (BOP) and leaving vast areas unheld. The antidote is to dot the entire border with BOPs.
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What the future holds
The situation prevailing in Eastern Ladakh can best be described as a strategic stalemate. China exploits the border dispute to impose its hegemony and militarily embarrass India, which hesitates to reciprocate due to an unfavourable military differential. At the operational level, China did achieve its limited politico-military aim of securing the 1959 Claim Line and preventing the development of border infrastructure in sensitive areas. However, India’s massive deployment to limit the intrusions and counter manoeuvre to secure the Kailash range denied absolute victory and stalemated China.
Neither side can alter the situation—short of a limited war that India does not want to initiate due to capability differential and China due to uncertain outcomes. In any case, the nuclear backdrop forecloses the option of inflicting a decisive defeat on India. It is the strategic stalemate, which is the driver for negotiations, that have led to disengagement at the north/south banks of Pangong Tso, Gogra/PP17A and PP15 apart from Galwan, where the sheer ferocity and scale of the ‘unarmed clash’ forced a disengagement. The same logic holds good for future disengagement in Depsang Plains and Demchok.
The 1959 Claim Line is central to China’s strategy in Eastern Ladakh. It had secured the same in 1962 before unilaterally withdrawing 20 km behind. Over the years, India gradually began patrolling up to the 1959 Claim Line and in some areas east of this line. As per India, the LAC runs along the areas that were physically held or patrolled at the time of signing the 1993 Border Agreement. As per China, it runs along the 1959 Claim Line. It is the development of border infrastructure in the areas east of the 1959 Claim Line that triggered PLA’s pre-emptive manoeuvres from April to May 2020. The Indus Valley is a special case. While the 1959 Claim Line runs 30 km to the west of Demchok, LAC has been accepted by China due to the number of well-settled villages in this area. Its intrusion is restricted to a small zone—Charding-Ninglung Nala to the south of Demchok to deny the opportunity for offensive operations to India.
It is unlikely that China will settle for anything short of buffer zones in Depsang Plains and the Charding-Ninglung Nala. In my view, India is not averse to such an arrangement—as is evident from the four buffer zones already accepted—to diffuse the situation. The only issue is to get the best bargain. The government’s majority and political narrative safeguard it from any adverse political fallout.
A host of other international developments favour a negotiated interim settlement. China has noted that its actions are cementing India’s alliance with the US. It has also been noted that India, as an emerging power, will retain its strategic autonomy in international relations. This is evident from its policy for Ukraine and its economic and military relations with Russia.
China itself has been chastened by the Taiwan crisis, where its bluff and bluster have been called out by the US and its allies. It would prefer to avoid a two-front situation in the future. China needs India to give credibility to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS). The SCO meet in Uzbekistan scheduled between 15-16 September, and the G20 meet in Indonesia in November open a window for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping to meet face-to-face after three years.
Negotiations for disengagement in Depsang Plains and Demchok will be arduous and prolonged. I predict that India will accept the 1959 Claim Line with buffer zones in areas of disagreement except in the Indus Valley. This, along with the fairly well-settled Central sector (except for Barahoti Plains) and the well-recognised McMahon Line in the Northeast, will de facto demarcate the LAC along the entire northern border. The rest is for India to safeguard it by establishing BOPs in all un-held areas to prevent salami slicing and military embarrassments short of war. Unless there is political collapse, there is no chance of India ever recovering its territories lost to China. It may be prudent to take the clock back to 1959 and bargain these for recognition of the McMohan Line for a final settlement.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R), served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post-retirement, he was member of the Armed Forces Tribunal. He tweets @rwac48. Views are personal.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)