Eye on China is a weekly bulletin offering news and analysis related to the Middle Kingdom from an Indian interests perspective.
I. The Pangong Tso Disengagement
Both China and India announced the beginning of disengagement along the north and south banks of Pangong Tso this week. The first announcement came from Beijing, with China’s defence ministry announcing “synchronised and organised disengagement from February 10.” It said that this was being done in “accordance with the consensus reached by both sides at the 9th round of China-India Corps Commander Level Meeting.” On Thursday then, Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh addressed Parliament, confirming the disengagement. In a detailed statement, Singh said that:
“The agreement that we have been able to reach with the Chinese side for disengagement in the Pangong lake area envisages that both sides will cease their forward deployments in a phased, coordinated and verified manner. The Chinese side will keep its troop presence in the North Bank area to east of Finger 8.Reciprocally, the Indian troops will be based at their permanent base at Dhan Singh Thapa Post near Finger 3. A similar action would be taken in the South Bank area by both sides. These are mutual and reciprocal steps and any structures that had been built by both sides since April 2020 in both North and South Bank area will be removed and the landforms will be restored. It has also been agreed to have a temporary moratorium on military activities by both sides in the North Bank, including patrolling to the traditional areas. Patrolling will be resumed only when both sides reach an agreement in diplomatic and military talks that would be held subsequently. The implementation of this agreement has started yesterday in the North and South Bank of the Pangong Lake. It will substantially restore the situation to that existing prior to commencement of the standoff last year.”og
Since then, there have been visuals in the media about tanks being pulled back. Of course, this process of creating a buffer zone, as was done in the aftermath of the Galwan Valley clashes, will take some time; verification will be required; it needs to hold long-term; new protocols need to be arrived at; and of course, there are other friction points that need to be addressed. Also, there’s the important question of the heights that Indian forces had occupied, and what are the implications of giving those up. And finally, how does any of this impact India’s border infrastructure development drive. There’s also been some back and forth about the Indian side not emphasising the restoration pre-April 2020 status quo and instead focussing on peace and tranquility. Here’s what Rajnath Singh actually said in this regard:
In September, “I had highlighted that the Chinese side had since April/May 2020 amassed large number of troops and armaments in the border areas adjacent to Eastern Ladakh. It had also made several attempts to transgress the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in various parts. These actions of the Chinese side had been detected and appropriately responded to by our armed forces. The House and the Nation had also paid homage to the brave Indian soldiers who had made the supreme sacrifice and laid down their lives in the cause of defending the territorial integrity of India.I would today like to apprise the House of certain important developments since then. Since last September, both sides have maintained communication with each other through military and diplomatic channels. Our objective was to effect disengagement and maintain status quo along the LAC so as to restore peace and tranquility.” It’s fairly clear that he’s talking about status quo being a prerequisite to peace and tranquility.
Anyway, let’s take a look at some of the reports around the disengagement in India and China. First, Nitin Gokhale reports for StratNews Global that the negotiations between the two sides produced “a rare written document about the disengagement process detailing sequential steps, distance and place to which heavy armour and weapons platforms would be withdrawn in phases, also how and when negotiations over the remaining friction points in Ladakh would take place.” He writes that the final verbal agreement was reached on January 24. It was put into writing with the Indian side confirming on Feb. 8. “The Chinese sent back a written document on February 9, signed it on the morning of February 10 and started to withdraw heavy armour from the peaks in Chushul immediately.”
He also writes that the creation of this buffer zone between fingers 3 and 8 was an Indian proposal. He explains: “For India, this was acceptable for two reasons: One, this would mean the Chinese had to vacate the area they were occupying between Finger 3 and 8 since May 2020. This was the restoration of status quo ante pre-May 2020 on the north bank of Pangong Tso that India wanted. The creation of a no-patrol zone was temporarily acceptable to India since India foot patrols used to go up to Finger 8 around once in two months (because of lack of road from Finger 3 to Finger 5 on the Indian side) while the Chinese could come up to Finger 5 swiftly and frequently since they had managed to build a road from Finger 8 in the 2000s (after starting to lay a track in 1999).”
Second, Snehesh Alex Philip and Nayanima Basu report that “a grueling winter deployment resulting in higher Chinese casualties than Indian, Beijing’s understanding that New Delhi is not backing down, coupled with the upcoming 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party in July…are believed to be the reasons why China finally came around to disengaging at Pangong Tso in Ladakh.” The piece also quotes unidentified sources as saying that “the row at the two other points — Gogra-Hot Springs and Depsang Plains — will take time to resolve.”
In his newsletter, Ananth Krishnan writes that “India will vacate the strategically important heights it occupied in late August as a response to China’s moves. Both will return to their bases at Chushul and Moldo…” He further writes about the Gogra-Hot Springs issue, explaining that,
“tackling the stand-off there at Patrolling Points 15 and 17A should be more straightforward considering there are nowhere near the same number of troops or the deployment of tanks and artillery that we saw at Pangong Lake. If the Pangong Lake consensus holds, this should be easy to settle.” The last key area that then remains is the Depsang Plains. “There is somewhat less urgency” on the Indian side to deal with this, according to him, because it predates the 2020 crisis and troops here are not in eyeball-to-eyeball situation.
On the other hand, the Indian Express’ Krishn Kaushik reported on Friday that the process “started with the pulling back of certain columns of tanks from the south bank region by both sides…at the moment, there is no pullback of troops from the friction points and the heights they are positioned on. That will happen in a phased and verified manner.” This suggests that in principle, there’s an agreement on vacating the heights. Shishir Gupta writes for Hindustan Times that the PLA was rather quick in pulling back tanks, starting Wednesday, which in itself is a signal. He quotes an official identified as a “senior member of the Narendra Modi government” as saying that: “The speed of Chinese withdrawal since Wednesday also shows their capacity to deploy. It is a military art. The Indian side has also pulled back its armour but contingency plans are ready in case of a worst-case scenario.”
Finally, what does this mean for the larger bilateral relationship? Well the key word there is trust, and that’s going to take a long time to restore. There will need to be fundamental changes in China’s approach to India, on the boundary and with regard to aspirations. See the Indian Army chief’s comments on Friday, for a perspective. Indian Express reports his comments as follows: “The rising footprints of China in India’s neighbourhood and its attempts to unilaterally alter the status-quo along our disputed borders have created an environment of confrontation and mutual distrust…He said the regional security environment is ‘characterised by Chinese belligerence in the Indo-Pacific, its hostility towards weaker nations and relentless drive to create regional dependencies through initiatives like the BRI (Belt and Road Initiative). The resultant Sino-US rivalry has created regional imbalances and instability’.”
Also, the reports on India-China consultations at the UNSC suggest that negotiations on aspirations will remain testy. The Indian delegation used video conferencing to brief the Chinese side “on India’s priorities during its UNSC tenure,” the external affairs ministry said in a statement. China’s MoFA said that “the two sides exchanged views on such issues as upholding multilateralism, UN peacekeeping operations and counter-terrorism.” On India’s bid for a permanent UNSC seat, the spokesperson said that “China has been a supporter of Security Council reform, advocating that the reform should enhance the Council’s authority and efficacy and that priority be given to the increased representation and say of developing countries, with a view to enabling more small and medium-sized countries to participate in the decision-making of the Council. Efforts should be made to seek a package solution that accommodates all parties’ interests and concerns on the basis of extensive and democratic consultations.”
In Chinese media, there’s been little commentary; this is, in part, due to the new year. But it’s telling that Global Times’ Chinese language editions have also not had any pieces. Anyway here’s Andrew Korybko, a Moscow-based American political analyst, writing for CGTN. I don’t agree with this assessment; nevertheless, I’m sharing it since it is useful to know the narrative that Beijing wants to sell. Tells you a little bit about their priorities. He essentially says that this is a positive development and sees the pullback in the light of the promise of “pragmatic” foreign policy by the Biden administration. He writes that “From the Indian perspective, New Delhi cannot rely as much on Washington as before for support during its tense disagreements with Beijing. This is because President Biden promised to focus on what he described as the ‘international rules of the road,’ which hints at a willingness to abide more by international norms than before…New Delhi likely interpreted that as a signal to stabilize relations with Beijing so that both countries can constructively focus on areas of mutual interest such as managing their other differences like those in the economic sphere.” Here’s a bit from the Biden-Modi call this week that does more than enough to push back against this narrative:
“The leaders agreed to continuing close cooperation to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific, including support for freedom of navigation, territorial integrity, and a stronger regional architecture through the Quad. The President underscored his desire to defend democratic institutions and norms around the world and noted that a shared commitment to democratic values is the bedrock for the U.S.-India relationship.” In addition, do check out the fact that India and America have just begun the two-week-long annual Yudh Abhyas exercise in Rajasthan.
In another piece on Guancha, there’s a lot of propaganda point scoring, but then Shi Yang writes this, which is useful to keep in mind: “from the perspective of China’s overall national strategy, China’s core interests still lie in the southeast coast and the South China Sea, and a rash military operation in the western region would disperse its military forces, geostrategically turn its current ‘potential rivals’ into ‘clear enemies’ and give an opportunity to extraterritorial powers to intervene. In such a situation, a temporary de-escalation of the situation through peaceful means, although it is not possible to completely solve the relevant territorial issues, will help us to better deal with the main security issues of the moment.”