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.
India’s leader spoke publicly today about the 20 Indian soldiers killed on Monday evening by Chinese forces along the Sino-Indian border. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said “the sacrifice of our soldiers will not be in vain,” and warned that India was capable of giving “a befitting reply.”
The two sides have blamed each other for instigating the battle. China’s foreign minister Wang Yi accused the Indians of provoking Monday’s clash, and violating the agreement reached by the two countries to deescalate tensions at the border. Wang informed his Indian counterpart that “The Indian side must not misjudge the current situation and must not underestimate China’s firm will to safeguard territorial sovereignty.”
That, in a nutshell, is what the situation boils down to: perceptions, and misperceptions. Conflicting perceptions of China’s intentions by Indian policymakers has contributed significantly to the discrepant policies, and strategies the Indian government and military have used in this crisis. The primary misperception seems to have been not tying China’s actions along the Line of Actual Control to its expansionism-driven foreign policy goals. This has caused New Delhi to underestimate the extent China is willing to go to in this crisis. Monday night proved this beyond the shadow of a doubt. Consequently, India is now forced to play catch up to an extent, and doing so carries the threat of further clashes, and escalation.
India’s military services have raised their alert levels. Army installations, and airbases in the area of the border have been placed on high alert. Frontline units along the Line of Actual Control have already been reinforced but the prospect of further reinforcement moving into the area remains. The Indian Navy has also raised its alert level, and is deploying additional ships and submarines into the Indian Ocean. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has made a number of forays into the IO over recent months and given what is happening at present in the Himalayas, the Indian Navy is growing serious about Chinese naval movements into its sphere of influence.