Terms of disengagement

A combination of robust economic, diplomatic, and military responses from the Indian government has yielded some progress in a nine-month-long confrontation with China in Ladakh with both armies pulling back from positions along Pangong Tso. This marks a welcome step back from a costly conflict of attrition in one of the world’s highest battle zones. But the government would do better to consider this latest agreement the starting rather than the end-point of continuing dialogue with Beijing over disputes all along the border from the north to the north-east. The current disengagement certainly lowers the diplomatic temperature — and it is significant that it was announced in China first — but it leaves unanswered several open questions, including the real terms of this latest disengagement.

Though Defence Minister Rajnath Singh announced in Parliament that India had not conceded anything to China, it is notable that he did not claim a return to the pre-April 2020 status quo. This is because the agreement, following the ninth round of military-level talks, falls somewhat short of India’s demands for most of last year of a return to the status quo. The latest agreement creates a 10-km buffer zone along the eight ridges or “fingers” along the shore of Pangong Lake. The Chinese will remain east of Finger Eight and the Indians west of Finger Three. Left unacknowledged is the fact this so-called buffer zone was a place the Indian army had patrolled since 1962 as Finger Eight lay west of the Line of Actual Control (LAC); now, it will effectively be out of this zone.

This agreement appears to be part of a pattern. In July last year, following a clash that killed 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese soldiers after the latter encroached 2-4 km into Indian territory in the Galwan valley north of Pangong, both armies pulled back to a buffer zone. Though this was praised as progress, the zone appeared to be largely in formerly Indian-claimed territory and left the Indian army further away from the LAC than before. Crucially, too, the latest agreement does not include the Depsang sector, near Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) in northern Ladakh, where the Chinese army had crossed the LAC and established a permanent base some 15-20 km inside Indian-claimed territory and where it continues to block Indian patrols. This is a critical sector since control of DBO would cut off India’s access to the Karakoram Pass. Mr Singh did inform Parliament that some “outstanding issues with regard to deployment and patrolling at some other points along the LAC in Eastern Ladakh”.

It is possible that India will persist with its multi-pronged dialogue and diplomatic pressure — such as the stiff limits on Chinese foreign direct investment — to add heft to negotiations. But the fact is that Sino-Indian boundary disputes have long been hamstrung by Beijing’s refusal to clearly delineate its boundary claims, which makes creeping encroachments a constant threat not just in eastern Ladakh but in Arunachal Pradesh too. India has responded to this threat by recently reorienting its mechanised mountain strike corps from Pakistan to China and both armies will maintain close to 100,000 troops behind the front lines even after the pullback. But if this latest disengagement indicates anything, it is that there can be no let-up in intelligence and military vigilance so that India does not discover Chinese encroachments after the fact.


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