The completion of disengagement from the Hot Springs area (Patrolling Point-15) by India and China has come as a surprise to China-watchers, though the possibility of some easing on the LAC existed due to the forthcoming 22nd meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) scheduled for September 15-16. The SCO meeting is being attended by both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping, as confirmed by both countries.
India and China have border disputes spread across multiple areas, but the major dispute is in the Ladakh region and Arunachal Pradesh. There are claims and counterclaims, and both countries have not been able to resolve the disputes despite multiple rounds of consultations and discussions. China has always termed its 1959 claim line both as its border as well as the LAC. Whereas, India advocates its border to include the Aksai Chin area up to Kunlun Ranges based on the Johnson line, besides minor accretions in other areas. Both countries perceive the LAC in a different ways.
During the 1962 aggression, China captured large chunks of Indian territories and continues to be in its adverse possession.
The bilateral relations went through several difficult phases before the Peace and Tranquility Agreement was signed to respect the LAC in 1993. Additional agreements were subsequently signed and Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) were initiated to ensure peace. These measures were expected to lay the foundation for resolving the border issue for which a number of mechanisms were created.
After the 1962 war, there have been a few confrontations between both countries in 1967 (Nathula-Chola), 1987 (Samdurong Chu) and 2017 (Doklam), but these were limited in gravity and could be settled soon. But the Chinese incursions of April-May 2020 were widespread, defied accepted norms, belittled all the mutual agreements and projected new Chinese claim lines even in the areas where they had formally communicated a different alignment.
The 2020 incursions were marked by multiple incidents including the Galwan clashes, the occupation of Kailash ranges by India, and then followed by sixteen rounds of Corps commander-level talks and diplomatic/ political engagements so far. Till date, disputes at all the flashpoints including Galwan valley, Pangong Tso North, Gogra and Hot Springs have been settled on paper except those of Depsang Plains and Demchok.
However, the settlement is illusory because an impression seems to have been created that it is a win-win for India so far, but it is not entirely true.
Disengagements So Far
India had delineated 65 Patrolling Points (PPs) from Karakoram Pass in the north to Chumar in Eastern Ladakh in 1976 and has been patrolling these points ever since. The current incursions by China have restricted India's access to the areas it had been patrolling. The disengagements in Galwan Valley, North bank of Pangong Tso, Gogra area and now in Hot Springs have created a buffer zone, preventing our patrolling in these areas which we had been patrolling earlier. Since our claim and control over the buffer zone has shrunk following the disengagements, it amounts to a loss of our territory and is akin to losing control of our own land. One hopes that it remains temporary and further negotiations result in restoring our right of patrolling to pre-April 2020 positions.
The current disengagement at PP15 is limited to forward troops only. As one gauges the Chinese intentions, it appears that China can always reoccupy these positions. Since it has often disregarded the previous agreements, what credence it will give to the current arrangements remains debatable. By accepting these disengagements, India has imposed a restriction on its own capacity to respond to the Chinese moves.
It is instructive to note that when we were in an advantageous position after the occupation of Kailash ranges in August 2020, there was some possibility to resolve the entire LAC aggression in a single sweep. India hoped that once we vacated the Kailash ranges, China would revert back to pre-April 2020 positions but it did not happen, and we lost the advantage.
The Chinese Threat
With the fast development of infrastructure and bridges by China on the Pangong Tso and its plans to construct another highway through India-claimed territory, besides the massive troop deployment along the LAC, the military threat from China has become permanent. India is forced to maintain a large number of troops in these areas to handle the Chinese threat.
More importantly, the deadlock at Depsang Plains and Demchok still continues. The Depsang Plains are highly strategic. If India is able to reclaim its territory, it will be able to restrict the China-Pakistan alliance in the region besides being in a position to interfere in Chinese communications, if required. No normalcy can be restored unless all points are settled.
The current and suddenly announced disengagement from Hot Springs appears to be softening of the stance prior to the SCO meet. One hopes that the meeting draws the final curtain to the conflict and leads to conditions existing prior to April- 2020, including restoration of our patrolling rights.
(The author is a Kargil war veteran, visiting fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, and tweets @ChanakyaOracle. Views expressed are personal)