After three rounds of military-level talks, a round between the two foreign ministers, and on July 5, between the Special Representatives on the Boundary Question, National Security Adviser Ajit Kumar Doval, and China’s State Councillor Wang Yi, a movement towards de-escalation is said to be taking place in the military build-up at the Line of Actual Control. Chinese soldiers are said to be stepping back in three of the contentious areas — Galwan, Hot Springs and Gogra. This is a development in the right direction. However, the verification process by the Indian Army is still underway, and it should continue to be so. After all, the incident at Galwan Valley in which 20 Indian soldiers were killed, took place at a time when the two sides were supposed to be disengaging. Moreover, there appears no de-escalation at the other “friction point”, Finger 4 at Pangong Lake. In any case, disengagement does not mean a return to status quo ante yet. At Sunday’s Special Representatives meeting, the two officials reiterated their commitment to the maintenance of peace and tranquility in the border areas. But the distinct difference in the tone and tenor of the readouts of this meeting put out by the Ministry of External Affairs and the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs draws attention to the hazards of jumping to conclusions. According to the Chinese statement “the right and wrong of what recently happened at the Galwan Valley in the western sector of the China-India boundary is very clear. China will continue firmly safeguarding our territorial sovereignty as well as peace and tranquility in the border areas”.
The challenges ahead for India remain enormous. One is the sheer length of the LAC — 4,000 km of it, compared to the Line of Control which is 740 km. Apart from the disputed portions that already exist and that both sides have discussed in several previous rounds of talks between the Special Representatives, there is now an unpredictability as China disputes portions on which there was no ambiguity earlier. India’s perception of the Galwan Valley was not disputed by the Chinese before this summer. A give in one part of this long unmarked boundary may be accompanied by take somewhere else. In the latest demonstration of this unpredictability, China has now opened a new front, staking claim to territory in eastern Bhutan, close to the border of Arunachal Pradesh. This “eastern sector” had never been part of 24 rounds of boundary talks between Bhutan and China. The claim, which first came to light when China tried to block UN funding to the Sakteng wildlife reserve in that area, was reiterated by Beijing on Sunday. Even as the Indian Army is preoccupied in Ladakh, this places more pressure on it in the eastern sector, where China claims all of Arunachal Pradesh.
After Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Ladakh, and his forceful speech to the soldiers there, with its unambiguous messages for the country, Beijing and the international community, the hard slog is here: Ensuring that China keeps its commitment to peace and tranquility in the border areas.