On 10 February, China’s Ministry of National Defense put out a statement that was brief in its language but significant in what it stated—“The Chinese and Indian frontline troops at the southern and northern banks of the Pangong Tso Lake start synchronized and organized disengagement.” The ten-month standoff along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh had taken the first step towards a resolution.
The Raksha Mantri’s statement in Parliament the next day provided further details of the disengagement process. The Chinese side would move its troops from their forward deployment in the North Bank at Finger 4 and pull back to the east of Finger 8. Reciprocally, the Indian troops would be relocated to their permanent base at Dhan Singh Thapa post at Finger 3. There would be a temporary moratorium on military activities in the North Bank, including patrolling by both sides to their traditional areas.
Similar action would be taken in the South Bank. Any structures built by both sides since April 2020 in the North and South Banks would be removed. After the complete disengagement in the Pangong Lake area, senior commanders would meet to address and resolve all other remaining issues. As clarified later in a Ministry of Defence statement, the remaining issues are at Gogra, Hot Springs, and Depsang.
While many hailed the start of the disengagement process as a major breakthrough without India having made any territorial concessions, there were also many dissenting opinions. The main issues of contention are that we have given up our right to patrol up to our traditional boundary claim at Finger 8 and the no-patrol buffer zone created is entirely in the Indian territory. It is also argued that by agreeing to vacate the heights on the Kailash Range in the South Bank, we have lost our most valuable bargaining chip and the Chinese Army would now be under no pressure to disengage from the remaining areas, particularly Depsang. It is essential to view all these issues dispassionately.
At the North Bank
Looking first at the North Bank. India claims that the LAC passes through Finger 8 while the Chinese claim areas up to Finger 4. Traditionally, both sides patrolled up to their claim lines, and there was an unwritten agreement that soldiers of either side would not physically occupy the area between Fingers 4 and 8. This agreement was broken when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) intruded and established posts and defensive positions at Finger 4.
By agreeing to relocate east of Finger 8, the PLA is pulling back from what the Chinese Ambassador to India described in July 2020 as their “traditional customary boundary line”. This is not a minor concession and is in line with India’s consistent demand to restore the status quo ante that existed in April 2020.
Regarding the buffer zone, we could look at Finger 8 as our boundary and say that the buffer zone is entirely on our side. The same logic applies to the Chinese. Based on China’s claim, a buffer zone extending eastward from Finger 4 could be considered as being entirely in Chinese territory. The advantages or disadvantages are similar for both sides. A temporary moratorium on patrolling is essential if we do not want to see a repeat of the Galwan incident in which a deadly patrol clash vitiated the ongoing disengagement process.
Prospects of further disengagement
At the South Bank, we are indeed giving up tactical advantage. However, it would also not be entirely correct to assume that our occupation of some heights on the Kailash Range was the most important reason China agreed to disengagement. 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.
We also cannot selectively apply the principle of restoration of status quo ante only to the North Bank and not to positions occupied by us on the South Bank after April 2020. We must be conscious that there must be some alignment of interests for any negotiation to succeed, and both sides must feel that they are better off with an agreement as opposed to a continuing deadlock.
We finally come to the prospects of further disengagement at Gogra, Hot Springs, and Depsang. At this stage, it would be premature to comment on the success or failure of a process that is yet to commence. If the Chinese stall this process, it could justifiably be said that we should have insisted on a package deal that included disengagement from all areas and should not have agreed to start only in the Pangong Lake and vacate the Kailash Range. However, that criticism should be reserved for later.
Some of our reservations about Chinese intentions stem from a complete lack of trust that resulted from China unilaterally breaking all the border agreements and protocols that had kept the peace along the LAC. While this mistrust must translate into a robust verification mechanism for ensuring that PLA is sticking to its side of the bargain, it should not cloud our understanding of the agreement’s advantages. The ongoing standoff was hurting both countries, and taking some risks in bargaining is well worth a positive result.
In the end, I must admit that I have analysed the contours of the disengagement process purely from the perspective of whether the agreed terms give a military advantage to any side. In the larger context of overall bilateral relations, even if the status quo is restored on the ground, the damage that has been done will take many years to mend.