Winter thaw in Ladakh

After a six-month standoff, the first hopeful signs of disengagement between the Indian and Chinese military in Ladakh appear to be emerging. To be sure, much of the current impulse for the pullback is driven by convenience for both sides as the winter sets in and the expense and effort of maintaining battle-ready troops at terrain over 13,000 feet, when the temperature drops below (-) 20 degrees Celsius, rise sharply. But the few details that are available suggest that the deal — this was the eighth round of talks between the two armed forces — is confined to the scenic Pangong Tso area, where Indian forces recently gained some countervailing advantage. This builds on the partial disengagement in the Galwan area further north in July after a clash a month earlier when 20 Indian soldiers died.

Reports suggest that according to the broad proposal, the main adjustments will be along the northern bank of the lake where China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had occupied four of the eight “fingers” or ridges — specifically Fingers Four through Eight — which lie squarely in territory that India claims. Under the agreement, the details of which are yet to be finalised, the Chinese will move back from the Finger Four area of the northern banks of Pangong Tso to beyond Finger Eight (close to the Line of Actual Control or LAC) and the Indian troops will move back to Finger Two (they currently occupy a post on higher ground just short of Finger Four). This essentially leaves a buffer zone between Chinese and Indian troops to avoid fresh conflict. But this buffer is, in reality, entirely on the Indian side of the LAC.

In the broader scheme of the Indo-China border dispute, therefore, this military-to-military plan based on reciprocal action is likely to be somewhat limited, just as the disengagement in the Galwan Valley area did not progress to other areas. Disengagement is welcome, but from the multiple rounds of negotiations it is obvious that even limited agreement has not been easily arrived at. The points of difference are still wide enough to ensure that conflict in this region will resume once the snows melt in the summer. Even at this stage, the Modi and Xi administrations appear to be talking past each other. For instance, the Global Times, mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, claims the disengagement plan requires India withdraw from friction points along east Ladakh, which India claims at its territory. 

The Indian government, meanwhile, has reiterated its demand for a settlement all along the LAC. On this, there seems to be no agreement, especially on the plateau leading into Daulat Beg Oldie, which is close to the Karakoram Pass, where China has occupied the maximum territory. The key obstacle to negotiations, whether military or diplomatic, in the region is China’s fluid and flexible definition of the LAC, which essentially renders negotiations a game of smoke and mirrors. The partial disengagement along Pangong Tso may meet immediate practical exigencies for both sides. It would, however, be premature for it to be seen as a precursor to a wider or, indeed, lasting peace along the LAC.


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