Written By Ameya Pratap Singh
India and China have successfully completed their four-step disengagement plan in Pangong Tso, Eastern Ladakh. This plan had been agreed to in the ninth round of talks at the Corps Commander-level on January 24. China pulled back its troops to the East of Finger 8 on the north bank, which is the farthest extent of India’s claim line, while Indian troops retreated to the Dhan Singh Thapa post behind Finger 3. This effectively re-establishes status-quo ante as of April 2020 (before the crisis began) while also dramatically reducing the risk of inadvertence through a temporary no patrolling buffer zone. All military infrastructure in this zone has also been dismantled. Arguably, India’s “quid pro quo” strategy (Operation Snow Leopard) to occupy the heights on the south bank at Rechin La and Rezang La, the Kailash Range, and on the north bank of Pangong Tso which overlooked Chinese positions on the ridge lines in the Finger 4 area, led to this breakthrough by creating equal opportunity for both states to make concessions.
While this improvement is welcome, an important question to ask is: How was this disengagement plan achieved? In other words, why do rivals trust agreements they reach during crisis bargaining? If China’s attempts to change the status quo along the Line of Actual Control violated foundational agreements on the border, such as the 1993 Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility, why did India trust them to adhere to the disengagement plan? If China defected and PLA troops had moved in to re-occupy disputed areas, India could have suffered great reputational and strategic costs. This situation is not unusual in international relations. Rivals often lack an experiential script that allows mutual cooperation to flourish. So, how do they learn to build the necessary confidence in the other’s words, to make post-crisis agreements work? After all, aren’t talk and written agreements “cheap” as any good realist would say?
Four rational factors have allowed basic confidence to develop in the India-China case. First, the agreed disengagement plan compartmentalised the risk of defection through specific reciprocity and gradualism (a step-by-step approach). This in turn had two parts: First, when trust levels are low, as Robert Keohane has argued, the specific exchange of equal value items (or in this case disengagement) in a strictly delimited sequence over a shorter period is necessary for cooperation. The rights, obligations, and duties of the parties must be stated clearly, eliminating any room for ambiguity or misperception; second, the exchanges/concessions should be incremental instead of a “leap of faith”. This helps limit the benefits of defecting early. In line with this, the India-China disengagement plan was a four-step one, as Lt. General Y K Joshi, head of India’s Northern Command, explained in an interview with India Today. Step 1 was disengagement of the armour and mechanical regiments on the R2 Complex, step 2 and 3 was disengagement of the infantries on the North and South bank of Pangong Tso, and finally, step 4 was disengagement on the Kailash Range. After each step, both armies verified whether a mutually satisfactory situation had been achieved and only then proceeded to the next one.
The second factor, to paraphrase John J Mearsheimer, was the “stopping power of the Himalayas”. With the coming of winter, the offence-defence balance on the Sino-Indian border shifted, and favoured defence. Any type of large-scale mobilisation at this time for forward deployment was highly challenging from a logistical point of view for either side. Even after the unfortunate clashes in the Galwan Valley on June 15 last year, a large number of troops on both sides had died due to hypoxia (16,000 ft altitude) and hypothermia after falling into the river. In particular, Indian reports suggested that adverse weather conditions disfavoured the Chinese more since “its army in Aksai Chin is largely made of conscripts, who were drafted for a three-month annual summer exercise in Tibet and Xinjiang in return for the state taking care of their future education”.
The third factor was a concern for credibility. As Robert Jervis has pointed out, the value of deception in diplomatic interaction is somewhat overstated. If caught bluffing or cheating the damage to one’s reputation can be irreversible. Especially in crisis bargaining situations where negotiated settlements are crucial to achieving optimal outcomes, surrendering the instrument of diplomacy entirely is not wise. Reneging on previous written agreements is one thing, lying during face-to-face interactions despite having made firm commitments is another. Both sides seemed to recognise that if defection occurred at this stage, there may not be much to prevent a future LOC-isation (lasting militarisation similar to the India-Pakistan border) of the Line of Actual Control along the Sino-Indian border. As Lt. General Joshi said, there was “no space for doubts or non-adherence” and the “PLA had demonstrated sincerity of purpose”.
The final factor—building on my own PhD research—are the presence of plausible exogenous explanations for disengagement. Both India and China needed convincing accounts for why the other would “prefer” disengagement instead of defection. For the Indian side, once again to return to Lt. General Joshi’s interview, the Chinese failed to achieve their strategic objectives, whatever these may be. It was India’s QPQ military moves (successful demonstration of resolve) that ultimately forced China to relent and disengage. On the Chinese side, India’s domestic troubles (farmers’ protests and economic recession) are seen as driving factors behind the preference for disengagement. In light of these, both states seem convinced of the other’s dissatisfaction with the military deadlock.
Thus, supporting conditions and the ability to devise a mutually acceptable and sequential disengagement plan laid the foundation for this vital breakthrough after a nine-month-long military stand-off. Now, both sides have determined to move on to the resolution of other friction points such as the Depsang plains, Gogra hot-springs and the Galwan valley. This was also reiterated during Minister of External Affairs S Jaishankar’s phone call with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi on February 26. There are reports of a proposed “hotline” between the two foreign ministries to “exchange opinions in a timely manner”. However, whether leaders on both sides will be able to maximise this “window of opportunity”— presented by the confidence re-built after successful disengagement in Pangong Tso along with the enabling factors mentioned here — to make similar progress elsewhere remains to be seen.
Singh is reading for a DPhil in Area Studies (South Asia) at the University of Oxford