In signs of a breakthrough in the nine month long India-China border standoff, both sides have kicked off initial disengagement in eastern Ladakh’s Pangong Tso area by pulling back some tanks, howitzers and armoured vehicles. Defence minister Rajnath Singh informed the Rajya Sabha yesterday that sustained talks had seen the two sides reach an agreement for disengagement on the north and south banks of Pangong, with the Chinese side withdrawing its troops to their positions east of Finger 8 and Indian soldiers pulling back to their Dhan Singh Thapa post between Finger 2 and 3. The area will then be designated as a temporary no-patrol zone.
That said, the entire process of sequential disengagement, de-escalation and de-induction will take time with the progress being monitored and verified at every stage. It will be recalled that we have been here before and the agreed disengagement process last year was disrupted by the Galwan valley clashes in June where 20 Indian soldiers were killed. Singh also said that senior military commanders from both sides will be meeting within 48 hours after the complete disengagement in Pangong to resolve remaining issues. These would include the Chinese intrusion in the strategically located Depsang Plains, where PLA troops have been blocking Indian soldiers from going to their traditional patrolling points.
Taken together, Delhi needs to be extremely cautious here. Even if the current round of disengagement from friction points goes off well, we don’t know that Beijing will de-mobilise the 50,000 troops it has deployed across the LAC. This will necessarily force the Indian army to remain deployed in difficult topography for longer durations. In which case the LAC would become like the LoC, putting additional burden on our defence resources.
Being stared down by Delhi is unlikely to have gone down well with Beijing, which plays the long game and regards India as an inferior power. There could be external factors at play here, such as the growing momentum of the Quad grouping or the Biden administration sticking to the previous Trump administration’s charges of China being guilty of human rights violations and bullying its neighbours. The fundamental issues remain: the LAC is undemarcated, India-China strategic rivalry is out in the open, Beijing’s support for Islamabad has never been stronger. Hence, Delhi must remain on guard and stick to the motto ‘distrust and verify’.
This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.
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