After 10 months of a tense standoff at the Line of Actual Control in Eastern Ladakh, an agreement between India and China for an initial disengagement of troops from forward areas in the north and south banks of Pangong Tso area should enable both sides to step back enough for a clearer vision on the next steps towards full status quo ante, that is to the military positions that prevailed before April 2020. The agreement has come after nine rounds of high-level talks.In this time, China, whose actions between April and May 2020 set off the crisis that threatened to destabilise the entire region seems to have accepted that whatever military objectives it might have had at the start, the price of achieving them would be heavier than it had perhaps estimated. The Indian decision to capture the heights on the southern bank of Pangong Tso gave it a strategic advantage and caught the People’s Liberation Army off guard. And the strong message from India that it cannot be business as usual after China’s decision to violate all the bilateral agreements on maintaining peace and tranquility at the border, including the decision to ban Chinese companies and scrutinise Chinese investment, no doubt played a role in disincentivising Chinese adventurism at the LAC.
The signalling from the Chinese side at the end of the eighth round of talks for disengagement provided the earliest hints that, in marked contrast to its usual strident posturing with neighbours with whom it has boundary issues, Beijing was eager to step back from a military crisis of its making. As both sides pull back their troops in a synchronised manner, the mood should be one of sober and guarded optimism. It must be remembered that the Galwan clash, in which India lost 20 soldiers, occurred immediately after an agreement to disengage.The timing of the disengagement, after the thaw has set in, is itself surprising.Trust between the two sides is at such a low ebb that India cannot afford to drop its guard. The lesson from Doklam is that verification will be crucial to this process.
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh was clear in his statement in the Rajya Sabha that while the agreement would “substantially restore the situation” to that existing prior to the standoff, there remain “outstanding issues” relating to deployment and patrolling at other friction points in eastern Ladakh, and that these would taken up with the Chinese side in further discussions. Though the minister did not specify the issues, the key to Chinese intentions lies in the Depsang Plains, where it has prevented the Indian Army from accessing a set of patrolling points. The process of returning to full status quo ante will be a long one and strewn with political and military pitfalls. Normalising bilateral ties with China after this bruising episode will demand even greater resolve.
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