Lessons of disengagement

The simultaneous announcement by New Delhi and Beijing of a decision to reduce military confrontation along the Sino-Indian Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh is to be welcomed. This came after several rounds of talks — military-level, between the two foreign ministers, and finally, between the Special Representatives on the Boundary Question of both the countries. The disengagement of troops, whenever that is completed, will hopefully de-escalate tensions, avert a prolonged impasse, and allow both sides to return to the relative peace that had been nurtured through a series of confidence-building agreements negotiated since 1993. Neither of the two Asian giants can afford prolonged hostility.

While the precise terms of disengagement, negotiated between the two sides’ military commanders and special representatives, have been kept secret, it must be ensured that China does not get away with its well-established strategy of two steps forward, one step back. The de-escalation agreement clearly does not restore the status quo ante of April, before the LAC was effectively redrawn by the occupation of several patches of Indian territory by Chinese soldiers. A fair and honourable settlement should see both sides pulling back to the positions they held in April before China violated the LAC, but that is not what is happening. Instead, Chinese troops, who had entered into Indian-controlled territory at multiple points, are pulling back in some sectors such as Galwan, whereas they continue holding on to the areas they occupied near the Pangong Tso lake and the Depsang plain. Furthermore, the “buffer zones” that are created to keep the two armies apart should have been carved equally from Indian- and Chinese-claimed territory. 

The implications of this are not difficult to see. China will have effectively redrawn the LAC by retaining chunks of Indian territory it has encroached upon, especially around Depsang and Pangong Tso. Many of the Indian Army’s traditional patrolling points — including Finger 8 near Pangong Tso and PP14 in Galwan — may no longer be accessible. That means there would be new limits on Indian patrolling, with the Army no longer able to patrol up to India’s traditional LAC claim. But it is a developing situation and a final judgment must wait on events. For now, however, China’s strategy of creating new facts on the ground and negotiating from that position seems to be working again.

Some of this was perhaps inevitable, once a Covid-19-preoccupied India was caught unawares by China. There is even some solace to be obtained from the international support that India was offered and from New Delhi’s decision to handle the crisis itself rather than accepting assistance from others. Even so, it is crucial to learn from this experience. The most important is to restore defence spending to a level that builds credible conventional deterrence capability against India’s adversaries, since a nuclear deterrent is hardly usable in eventualities such as small border conflicts. New Delhi wrongly assumed the country faced no serious threats to its territorial integrity, apparently because of its reliance on personalised diplomacy. In fact, the country’s sovereignty and safety are heavily dependent on the battle readiness and alertness of its security forces. Any shortfall in that is an invitation to precisely such situations as India now faces. 

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