India and China have begun moving forward-deployed troops and equipment away from some of the disputed areas of the border area. These are the areas where Chinese and Indian troops have been involved in a months-long standoff. The first movement of troops started on Wednesday near Pangong Lake in the Ladakh region. Both Beijing and New Delhi have spoke quite positively of the disengagement. India’s Defense Minister Rajnath Singh informed Parliament that the withdrawals will be completed in a “phased, coordinated and verified manner.”
The hope among some observers and experts is that this disengagement leads to a broader disengagement and eventual resolution of Sino-Indian border issues in the north. However, not everyone shares this viewpoint. In the eyes of an influential number of former Indian government officials and outside experts, this withdrawal indicates the current Indian government’s acceptance of Beijing’s position regarding the contested border territory. A handful of regional military commentators have also chimed in with their own theories, the most interesting being that the mutual withdrawal from Pangong is a smokescreen intended to mask the fact that China’s true military objective in East Ladakh is Depsang.
Regardless, the disputed Sino-Indian border has had a penchant for straining relations between the two countries in the past. In this most recent crisis the stakes have been higher given the COVID-19 pandemic, China’s ascendancy and India’s increasingly close relations with the United States. It remains to be seen if these mutual withdrawals will be permanent. These forward deployed forces are likely not being removed from the gameboard altogether. A redeployment to another area of the border, or reoccupying the former positions around Pangong would not take very long if ordered.
The foreign ministers of India and China met in Moscow today as a sidebar to the ongoing Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) meeting in Moscow. India’s senior diplomat Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi met for two-and-a-half hours as both sides attempt to calm the situation after hostilities flared up earlier in the week along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Monday’s standoff along the south bank of Pangong Tso Lake is responsible for bringing tensions to a near-boil. Chinese troops armed with spears and rifles approached Indian forward outposts and attempted to spark a physical fight. During the standoff shots were fired, the first time in 45 years that firearms have been discharged along the LAC. Just who fired the shots is unknown. China claims it was Indian troops who fired shots after ‘crossing the LAC.’ Predictably, India blames Chinese troops for firing the shots when they were forced to retreat.
Up to the time of the meeting today, Indian and Chinese military activity along the LAC continued. Indian troops occupied the heights that overlook Chinese positions at Finger 4. Taking control of the high ground, always an advantage in land warfare, is doubly advantageous in the rugged, mountain terrain of the LAC. Meanwhile, Indian and Chinese brigade-level commanders held ‘interactions’ in Eastern Ladakh. The purpose is to keep the lines of communications open even in the midst of a flareup.
So, diplomats and army officers from both sides continue to deliberate, and hold discussions. At the same time, military units continue to maneuver on the ground. The question is whether or not China will continue its strategy of subtle territorial pecks along the LAC. The potential for an armed conflict remains relatively high in the area even as both sides profess their desire to settle the crisis through diplomatic means.
The fourth round of corps-level commander negotiations between Indian and Chinese general officers took place on Tuesday. The talks turned into something of a marathon, lasting almost ten hours as both sides worked to finalize the groundwork for a “time-bound and verifiable” disengagement away from all of the potential flashpoint areas in eastern Ladakh. The day’s focus was set on withdrawing large numbers of troops, and weapons from bases along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). China has moved troops 1-2 kilometers away from Pangong Tso and Hot Springs in recent weeks, but the numbers involved has been limited, and the act deemed as purely a symbolic act intended to appear meaningful. Still, India is now looking for a further pullback to 8 kilometers to beyond the Finger 8 point where the LAC runs north to south.
During today’s negotiations, India has insisted on complete restoration of the status quo ante along the border prior to the beginning of the standoff on 5 May. It is unclear if progress was made on this matter, however, it is unlikely that any. Agreeing to India’s demand would negate practically all of China’s efforts since early in May. As the situation stands for the moment, Chinese troops remain encamped on Indian territory. The Indians have made no attempt to remove them by force, opting for diplomacy, and controlled sabre rattling to reestablish the pre-May frontier.
Meanwhile, as India and China work to disengage, the United States is ramping up pressure on China over its actions in the South China Sea. That will be discussed tomorrow.