LAC Standoff: De-escalation, Disengagement Or Status Quo Ante
The border standoff between India and China in Ladakh continues amidst calls from the international community to tone down the rhetoric and resolve the issue bilaterally. India and China, on their part have continued deliberations at both diplomatic and military levels. The nuances of negotiations, though, not available through the media to the general public indicate that the talks initially, were centred around de-escalation of the situation wherein violence had occurred on the night of 15th June in Galwan Valley and there were number of casualties on both sides. Gradually, the discussion moved towards the process of disengagement as both the parties had amassed a huge number of troops in the region.
The roots of the current standoff, however, go back to the months of April and May this year when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China moved to the many patrolling points on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and built structures (permanent and temporary). The build-up of the Chinese troops along the LAC which is disputed at many places and substitutes for the international border, till one is finalized, was unprecedented and reminded of the Chinese tactics of occupation in the South China Sea. Boundary-making process is a very sophisticated technical exercise which involves primarily four stages of Definition, Delimitation, Demarcation and Administration.
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In the case of the LAC, even the first stage which involves defining the boundary on the map is not clear at many points and locations. The matter becomes more complicated with the Chinese ignoring continual Indian demands to share the maps with the Chinese perception of the LAC. Though the mechanisms to resolve the boundary disputes are in place since the year 2005, the Chinese have refused to share the maps in all the deliberations. This raises a lot of questions and problems and has been one of the major challenges for the Indian side. The Chinese perception which they have often invoked in the media through their spokesperson have never been displayed through maps.
Nevertheless, even during this difficult phase, the discussions between the two sides have continued: at the External Affairs Minister level and at the level of the National Security Advisors of both the countries. This is followed by the talks by Corps Commanders of India and China at the ground situation in Ladakh. Chinese focus, however, remains on the disengagement and de-escalation and they have made it a very protracted process with constant insistence on the perceptions of the LAC. It is noteworthy that progress has been made on the ground over the course of the last month and forces have been gradually moving back to their respective territories and away from the LAC.
Indian Analysts, on the other hand have argued that total disengagement will be a long haul, especially at the Pangong Tso and the Depsang Plains. These two spots are extremely critical from India’s military and strategic perspective and that is precisely the reason that the Chinese want to maintain a stranglehold over them. The Depsang Plains lie in close proximity to India’s Air Force Base at Daulat Beg Oldie which is advantageous to India in adverse conditions.
At the Pangong Tso, the LAC is disputed and according to reports, Chinese have encroached more than 8 kms. inside the Indian version of the LAC which runs at Finger 8 (fingers are mountain features jutting out into the lake from the North Bank) and the Indian Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) used to patrol till this point. The Chinese have occupied area till Finger 4 and have built concrete structures effectively covering more than 60 square kms. of the area and therefore will be difficult to evacuate through negotiations. On the other hand, one of the parties can afford a conflict.
Indian stance, therefore, should be to press the negotiations towards the restoration of the status quo ante, or the situation which existed prior to the month of May 2020. Media reports in India indicate that during the last round of talks between the Corps Commanders on 14th-15th July, demand for status quo ante has been made by the Indian side to Chinese counterparts. Chinese media reports indicate little and only say that progress has been made on the disengagement of forces.
On the other hand, the pattern along this part of the LAC, due to altitude, difficult terrain and inclement weather conditions is that of withdrawal of forces from heights during the winter months and moving back to the permanent bases in the area. Given the situation this year this may not happen at Pangong Tso and Depsang Plains and the Indian side should be ready to face the vagaries of weather, terrain and altitude.
The experience of the Indian Army at the Siachen Glacier can be drawn to withstand the Chinese in the area. One way or the other, the strategic geography of the area of these crucial points will play an important role in the future of this picturesque militarized space.