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India’s negotiating strategy did not factor in the lessons from Wangdung and Doklam

The salvo of “befitting replies” will not impress the Chinese as our ambassador in Beijing pleads with Chinese officials for the restoration of the April 19 status quo ante.

Written by Ashok K Mehta |
Updated: August 20, 2020 8:54:01 am
A study of Wangdung is instructive after the PLA incursions in eastern Ladakh

In an article 25 years ago, after the resolution on August 20 of the Wangdung intrusion along Sumdorong Chu, I had asked: ‘Why are we quitting our territory?’

The question can be asked again. A study of Wangdung near the infamous Thagla Ridge — 20 km south of McMahon Line and beyond the limit of Indian patrolling — is instructive after the PLA incursions in eastern Ladakh. If only civilian and military officers had examined the earlier intrusion — the rapid reaction of local military commanders, swift concentration of forces, offensive spirit in dominating Wangdung and a firm negotiating strategy — we could have avoided the present fait accompli.

On June 16, 1986, the PLA pre-emptively occupied Wangdung, a seasonal post that used to be held by the Subsidiary Intelligence Bureau. 12 Assam and 9 Guards occupied the Lungrola and Hathungla Ridges by early July and by October, with forward elements of 12 Assam establishing posts along four spurs surrounding Wangdung — two forward checkposts 150 yards from those of the PLA were created. 12 Assam was replaced by 3/5 Gorkhas. Had local commanders not been proactive, the PLA would have sneaked up to Lungrola-Hathungla Ridges, as it did recently in Galwan, Pangong Tso and Depsang. By September 1, Exercise Falcon was launched to deploy and air-maintain two mountain divisions in a more strategic version of India’s 1960 forward policy, like the three divisions posted now. Tawang which had no troops in 1962, was held with five infantry brigades at the peak of the face-off. India was able to exercise, for the first time, control up to its perception of the McMahon Line. Exercise Falcon was followed in 1987 with Exercise Chequerboard when the entire northern front was war-gamed in each of the three northern, central and eastern army commands facing China.

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China asked for a mutual withdrawal in late 1986 but the Indian Army rejected it as it needed time to execute a forward policy. In 1993, India proposed a withdrawal to ridgelines separating Sumdorong Chu — the PLA to Zangla Ridge and Indian troops to Lungrola Ridge — but the Chinese feared this would legitimise McMahon Line. The Indian Army’s aggressive deployment was against the advice of the China Study Group and Ministry of External Affairs as PLA encroachment was beyond the Indian limit of patrolling, akin to the present locations of patrolling points.

From the pro-active forward positioning of Indian forces, a slew of political and military benefits accrued: Completion of forward deployment up to McMahon Line; moral ascendency over the PLA; PM Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to Beijing in 1988 and formation of a Joint Working Group; PM Li Peng’s visit to India in 1991; the Peace and Tranquillity agreement in 1993 and Army Chief Bipin Joshi’s visit to China in 1995. China recognised India as a strong and rising power, which invested up to 4 per cent of its GDP in defence.

Talks on disengagement resulted in a breakthrough nine years later on August 19-20, 1995, during the eighth JWG at New Delhi. India’s negotiating strategy was firm: The vacation of Wangdung was to be without prejudice to each other’s claim lines; those who advanced first, withdraw first — a PLA principle which was applied at Doklam; forces to withdraw to their original positions; mutual and equal security and mutual understanding and mutual accommodation, both derived from the 1993 border protocol.

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Writing in the Pioneer on September 3, 1995, former foreign secretary, A P Venkateswaran, called the mutual withdrawal a historic step. On August 29, former foreign secretary, J N Dixit, also called it a positive turn in The Indian Express. But Deputy Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha, BJP’s Jaswant Singh, asked the government: Why are we withdrawing from our own territory? Similar questions are being asked by Rahul Gandhi today.

Clearly, the terrain and internal lines of communication favoured India at Wangdung while multiple intrusions extending over 250-km in Ladakh recently caught military commanders off guard. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and intelligence and operational failures, India was stunned by PLA intrusions and reacted tardily and timidly. At Depsang (2013), Chumar (2014) and Doklam (2017), India was able to work out a complete withdrawal of the PLA. At Doklam too, though India enjoyed an overwhelming terrain and logistics advantage, it failed to stop PLA from building fortifications after disengagement. The PLA returned a few months later to continue building a strategic road in the disputed territory but India did nothing. After disengaging minimally, the PLA has dug down on the Indian side of the LAC in Ladakh.

India’s negotiating strategy did not factor in the lessons from Wangdung and Doklam. Military commanders, not high-level political engagement, set the parameters for withdrawal. A complex China-dictated template has permitted the PLA’s cosmetic disengagement and unilaterally shifting the LAC westwards, annexing Indian territory while Indian soldiers are quarantined in buffer zones. The Chinese are even refusing to discuss their deepest intrusion at Depsang and the restoration of the April 19 status quo ante is off the table. India failed to front-load the principle of disengagement/withdrawal without prejudice to each other’s claim lines while insisting on de-induction to original positions. Northern Army Commander Lt General Y K Joshi’s statement on July 25 — we shall continue all efforts to restore status quo ante along LAC — confirmed Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s pessimism on the outcome of talks.

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The Wangdung counter-intrusion offensive action was a positive turning point in India-China relations — a case of aggressive border management by 4 Corps. Now, the 14 Corps is stumped by the PLA’s refusal to fully implement disengagement, potentially transforming the LAC in Ladakh into an LOC at immense cost for India. On August 15, PM Narendra Modi was being economical with the truth while describing the situation along the LAC after ordering the taking down of the details about the same from the MoD website. The salvo of “befitting replies” will not impress the Chinese as our ambassador in Beijing pleads with Chinese officials for the restoration of the April 19 status quo ante.

This article first appeared in the print edition on August 20, 2020 under the title ‘Lessons from Wangdung’. The writer, a retired Major General, was part of the Sumdorong Chu monitoring team as a member of Defence Planning Staff

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