The process of de-escalation has been underway for several days in eastern Ladakh, where Chinese forces made large scale incursions in the areas of Pangong Tso, Galwan and Depsang in May. Prompt counter-deployment by the Indian Army to check the Chinese intrusions resulted in a serious standoff, marked by violent clashes on June 15.
There is lack of clarity in the environment about de-escalation per se; as terms like disengagement, pulling back, and withdrawal are being used concurrently, in the same breath.
De-escalation is a complex and time consuming exercise, as it entails navigating an uncharted course in a graduated manner. To decipher the dynamics of the ongoing de-escalation on the Line of Actual Control (LAC), it is essential to comprehend the genesis of the Sino-Indian border dispute, and the typical ‘conflict cycle’.
Genesis of the boundary dispute
While the main reason for the Sino-Indian conflict is apparently the unsettled border issue, there are other factors too – including divergent geopolitical interests and ideological dimensions.
In Ladakh, India considered the border to be along the Johnson Line of 1865, which included Aksai Chin. The Chinese on the other hand, initially agreed to the Macartney-MacDonald (M-M) line of 1899, which was west of the Johnson Line.
Towards 1959, the Chinese began to establish a series of posts west of the M-M Line, usurping large parts of Aksai Chin, as they had constructed the Western Highway from Kashgar to Lhasa through it, and wanted to consolidate the hold on Tibet. In response, India adopted a forward policy by setting up posts opposite the Chinese to check the latter’s expansion.
In 1960, the Chinese came out with a map laying claim to almost the whole of Aksai Chin. The main reason why Mao went for war in 1962 was to capture the claimed territories in eastern Ladakh, as also to teach India a lesson.
During the 1962 war too, DBO, Galwan, and the Pangong Tso-Chushul areas were scenes of major action. By the time the Chinese declared a unilateral ceasefire, the PLA had almost secured the areas up to the 1960 claim line. At the end of the war, the two sides as per mutual understanding withdrew 20 km from the positions last held by the opposing forces.
Subsequently, the Line of Actual Control came to denote the line up to which the troops on the two sides actually exercised control. However, the LAC was neither delineated on the map nor demarcated on the ground. Hence, both India and China have different perceptions on the alignment of LAC.
However, over a period of time, Patrolling Points (PPs) were identified on the ground, setting the limits up to which the two sides could patrol. These PPs became reference points, although these are not bang on the LAC but at some distance on the home side. Hence, it is through patrolling boundaries that the Indian and Chinese troops assert their territorial claims. There were 23 areas which were contested by both sides.
Given the potential for clashes, five major agreements were signed between India and China to ensure peace on the border.
* The first one on ‘Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity along the LAC’ was signed in 1993, which formed the basis for the subsequent agreements.
* In 1996, a follow-up agreement on ‘Confidence Building Measures’ along the LAC was inked, denouncing use of force or engaging in hostile activities.
* In the 2005 Agreement, ‘standard operating procedures’ were laid down to obviate patrol clashes.
* The Agreement of 2012 set out a process for consultation and cooperation.
* The ‘Border Defence Cooperation Agreement’ was signed in 2013 as a sequel to the Depsang intrusion by the PLA. Its emphasis was on enhancing border cooperation and exercising maximum restraint in case of ‘face-to-face’ situations. Wherever there was a difference of perceptions in disputed areas termed as ‘grey zones’, both sides could patrol up to the perceived line, but were not to undertake any build-up.
The dynamics of de-escalation
In the Chinese strategic culture, the use of force is considered perfectly legitimate. Since 1949, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has repeatedly resorted to force against neighbouring countries in the pursuit of its expansionist design.
It was in Chinese interest to not define the LAC or resolve the border dispute, so as to use it as leverage against India. The Chinese policy was to keep consolidating its position by building infrastructure, alongside the pursuit of the policy of ‘nibbling and negotiating’ to make tactical gains, employing unconventional means such as using graziers and border militias.
Given the scope and scale, the PLA aggression was well planned, and definitely cleared by the Central Military Commission (CMC), the highest defence body in the Chinese system. In the process, the Chinese violated all of the above agreements, and once again betrayed India’s trust.
Beijing’s strategic aim apparently was to convey a strong message to New Delhi to kowtow to its interests, and to desist from building border infrastructure so as to maintain status quo, which is at present in China’s favour.
In tactical terms, it was to make limited gains through large scale intrusions, undertake a build-up in the grey zones, and seek to shift the alignment of the LAC further westward.
The PLA’s probable objectives in the Pangong Tso area was to dominate the Chushul Bowl; in Galwan to dominate the Durbuk-DBO road; and in DBO, to posture towards the Depsang plateau to pose a threat to Siachen from the east and ensure the security of the Western Highway.
Given India’s strong resolve both at the political and military levels alongside favourable world opinion, the Chinese decided to de-escalate, having achieved their initial aim and to obviate further upsurge.
The process of de-escalation
Every conflict has a cycle – it begins with escalation, and is followed by contact, stalemate, de-escalation, resolution, peace-building and reconciliation.
The de-escalation process entails talks at multiple levels, and ground action in various stages. As in this case, there have been three rounds of talks at the Corps Commander level, simultaneous talks between Joint Secretaries, and at the level of Special Representatives.
On the ground, the first step in the de-escalation process is of disengagement – i.e., to break the ‘eyeball-to-eyeball’ contact between the opposing troops on the forward line by pulling back to create a buffer zone. This is currently in progress – the forward troops on both sides are reported to have pulled back by about 1.5 km in the area of PP 14 in Galwan, PP 15 southeast of Galwan Valley, and PP 17A in the Gogra-Hot Spring areas. Similar action will be required to be taken in the Pangong Tso fingers area, where the PLA has reportedly intruded up to Finger 4, as also in the PP 10-11 areas in Depsang-DBO.
The next step is the pulling back of the troops in the immediate depth, followed by reserve formations in the rear.
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In the present case, the PLA created a number of intermediate positions, besides staging forward 4 Motorised and 6 Mechanized Divisions. Even fighter aircraft have been positioned at the forward air bases like Ngari and Hotan. India too, has undertaken the requisite build-up. Withdrawal of all these elements will require many more rounds of talks at various levels.
Given the serious trust deficit — as the PLA is known to backtrack — each move will need to be confirmed and verified on the ground, and complemented by other surveillance means. Even the distance of pulling back cannot be sacrosanct, as the PLA is in a better position to build up, given the terrain advantage and better infrastructure.
India’s bottom line at the negotiation table is to restore the April 20 status quo ante. The Chinese are masters at engaging in marathon talks. Maj Gen Liu Lin, commander of the South Xinjiang Military Region (SXMR), who is currently representing the PLA in the Corps Commander-level talks, has been in the area as Division Commander and Deputy of SXMR. He took over the SXMR last year, and will be around for a couple of years, given the PLA’s long command tenures.
Well aware of the ground situation, Liu can be expected to indulge in hard bargaining. Therefore, the de-escalation process is set to be in for a long haul, marked by the ‘going back and forth’ phenomenon. India must have its options in place, should the process of de-escalation get stalled.
The writer is a veteran of the Bangladesh War; has commanded a battalion in the Siachen and Pangong Tso areas; served as Defence Attaché in China, North Korea and Mongolia; and is an author and international affairs expert.