The artillery barrage began at dawn, just as the sun began to light up the gentle blue of Pangong Lake. Facing some six hundred Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers, backed by light tanks, the 28 men of the 8 Gurkha Rifles dug-in inside hastily-dug trenches at Sirijap must have known they had no hope of survival. Yet, Major Dhan Singh Thapa and his troops held their ground, engaging their enemy at almost hand-to-hand range until just three men survived, too injured to fight on.
Union Defence Minister Rajnath Singh on Thursday announced that Indian soldiers locked in confrontation with the PLA along the Fingers — the eight, radiating ridges running from the north bank of Pangong — will pull back to Dhan Singh Post, named for the hero of Sirijap. The PLA, in turn, will withdraw to Sirijap, the complex of posts it took in that battle.
This Line of Actual Control (LAC) agreement, military commanders and diplomats in both capitals hope, could pull China and India back from the abyss — but many dangers still lie ahead.
In essence, the agreement is simple. In return for the Indian Army withdrawing to Dhan Singh Post, behind Finger 3, the PLA will retreat to positions east of Finger 8. Indian troops who occupied key heights on the Kailash range, south of Pangong, will also pull back to their bases in and around Thakung; the PLA will return to positions around Yula. The armies have been ordered not to patrol into the new no-man’s land from Finger 3 to 8, until New Delhi and Beijing agree otherwise.
The deal won’t be hard to monitor: satellites, drones with high-resolution cameras, and troops positioned on heights give both the PLA and Indian Army excellent visibility. Ahead of the spring, negotiators hope, the deal will deepen trust, and thus enable more troop withdrawal.
In some senses, the agreement restores the ground position before April 2020, when the PLA move to seize territories across the LAC. For years, the PLA’s patrols had moved out of Sririjap over Finger 8 and on to Finger 4; the Indian Army, in turn, patrolled the territory from Finger 4 to Finger 8. Neither side held positions in the area, though.
Even though critics will argue this week’s agreement concedes the PLA’s claims on the LAC, by suspending India’s right to patrol up to Finger 8, that argument obviously applies to China as well.
Generals in Indian Army’s Northern Command have long debated the merits of creating such demilitarised zones in contested parts of the LAC. Proponents argue these patrols serve no military purpose and raise the risks of fights breaking out between troops — an all too frequent occurrence.
In 2014, after PLA troops had occupied ground in the Chumar area, the two armies eventually arrived at a similar, though undeclared, mutual withdrawal and no-patrolling arrangement.
The 2014 deal appears to have served as an unacknowledged template for PLA-Indian Army negotiations through the crisis. Though conceptually elegant, however, the idea proved hard to implement.
Early on, the PLA had agreed to leave the positions it had occupied in the Galwan Valley in April. However, the PLA quietly reoccupied one of the vacated positions. The Indian Army’s effort to physically vacate this PLA outpost snowballed into the savage clash which claimed the lives of 20 Indian soldiers.
Following the Galwan clash though, the PLA and Indian Army again moved forward with the disengagement effort, pulling back soldiers from Patrol Point 14, 17 and 17A. These points mark the limits to which the Indian Army patrols, thus approximating the contours of the LAC.
Late in July, China’s foreign office spokesperson Wang Wenbin asserted that “most of the bases deployed on the front have completed the evacuation process and the ground conditions are recovering”. However, Wang acknowledged the existence of “remaining outstanding issues”.
The most important of those “outstanding issues” was the PLA’s refusal to vacate Green Top, a patch of scrub-land perched at over 5,000 metres above sea level, overlooking Finger 3 and Dhan Singh Post. China argued its occupation of Green Top was legitimised by Indian Army infrastructure development in the area—neatly eliding over the fact the Indian Army’s work was a consequence of the PLA’s own construction of roads and bunkers.
In later negotiations, the PLA insisted that it be ought to patrol up to Finger 4, in return for withdrawing from Green Top—but the Indian Army relinquish its right to Finger 8.
Following weeks of frustration, the Indian Army occupied positions along the Kailash range, on the south bank of Pangong — a counter-grab, as it were, to the PLA intrusions. The operation was intended to pressure China to negotiate.
That strategy seems to have worked — but there are some important caveats. First, as strategic affairs expert Manoj Joshi has pointed out, China’s claims to Finger 4 run well to the west of its so-called Claim Line of 1960, which enforced by the PLA in the China-India war two years later. In discussions held in April 1960, coordinates provided by China placed the LAC along Finger 7 and 8. The positions in Galwan and Gogra now claimed the PLA also lie to the west of its own claims.
In other words, the demilitarised zone now created between Finger 3 and 8 lies in territory which China has acknowledged, in formal negotiations, to lie on the Indian side of the LAC. To create this zone, moreover, India has used up an important bargaining chip, pulling back from the positions it took on the Kailash range.
There’s also the fact, secondly, that key areas of contention remain unresolved, in at least one case involving territory significantly larger than the Fingers. The PLA has cut off Indian patrols headed out through the Depsang plains to the arc marked by Patrol Points 10, 11, 11A, 12 and 13. At Bottleneck, a rock massif through which Indian patrols must pass to move through the plains, the PLA has created new, reinforced-concrete bunkers.
Finally, the PLA has mounted pressure elsewhere along the LAC, building roads and villages through disputed territory. Last month, the PLA sought to block Indian patrols at Naku La in Sikkim — part of a pattern of behaviour that could hold the kernels of future crisis.
These concerns aren’t reasons not to disengage troops; the deadlock at the LAC puts both countries at risk of ending up at war through missteps and miscalculations. New Delhi’s deal with China is a significant step away from the brink.
Yet, these are all excellent reasons to be cautious. For over a decade, after all, PLA-Indian Army face-offs have occurred with increasing frequency since 2013, each more significant in scale than the last. At its core, these tensions are political, not military: Facing what many in its leadership consider to be an inevitable confrontation with the United States, China has been seeking to intimidate adversaries across its borders, from the Senkaku Islands to the South China Seas and the Himalayas.
New Delhi has shown the courage and resolve to march the path to peace—but must beware the avalanches, crevices and cloudbursts that almost certainly lurk ahead.