The three-step proposal to ease the standoff on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) put forward by China has an uncanny resemblance to the ‘bring the troops back home’ resulting out of the US-Taliban agreement arrived at in February 2020.
It was pure political expediency by the United States President Donald Trump in the run-up to the presidential elections. While most details of the three-step proposal are not in the open domain, many observers from the strategic community have expressed varied yet cautionary views. The stated Indian official position is that the proposal in no way should be construed as an agreement. However, many in the media had projected the proposal to have the portents of ‘getting the troops home by Diwali’. However, that is yet to happen.
The basic proposal involves a three-step disengagement plan with tanks and heavy equipment moving out of the combat zone followed by simultaneous withdrawal of troops of both armies in the Pangong Tso area. Finally, Indian troops would have to withdraw from their dominating positions on the Kailash range. While there is ambiguity in the modalities of the pullback and post-withdrawal positons, what is abundantly clear is that the sectors of Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO)-Depsang and Hot Springs-Gogra have not been addressed.
The proposal throws up significant military and strategic questions as the status of the balance areas of the LAC where Chinese troops have occupied disputed areas has not been mentioned. Three key concerns will have to be weighed while considering the three-step proposal.
Three main concerns
First, the withdrawal of the Indian Army (IA) from the Kailash range is seen as a quid pro quo expected from us to the Chinese pulling back from Finger 4 to Finger 8 in the Pangong sector. It is a typical manifestation of the two-steps-forward and one-step-back approach of China. The present standoff was precipitated by the aggressive and sudden occupation by China of the disputed areas between fingers 4 and 8 on the north banks of Pangong in May 2020. The IA-occupied Rechin La and Rezang La, among others, on Kailash range on 29-30 August, in a counter move to dominate the Spangur Gap and to secure the south banks of the Pangong Tso lake. China has more to lose here due to the vulnerability of its Moldo garrison to IA which is now on the Kailash range. Incidentally, in 1962 it was Kailash range that China had targeted.
Second, there is no mention of Depsang plains in the DBO sector where China has denied the IA access to patrolling points 10 to 13, which were being patrolled prior to April 2020. The sector is in all military appreciations, the key to China gaining access to the Karakoram Pass to its north. This gives them a shorter route via Highway 219 to the Shaksgam Valley (ceded by Pakistan illegally to China) and Pakistan occupied areas of Gilgit-Baltistan, relevant to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
In addition, the DBO sector is also the only buffer between Siachen Valley and Aksai Chin areas held by China. If occupied by China, it will present Indian forces in Siachen and Nubra valley with two adversaries to face – China in the east and Pakistan in the west – a military nightmare by any standards. Domination of the ‘bottleneck’ area of Depsang and the ability to patrol Depsang plains are vital to keeping the DBO sector secure. Compared to Pangong sector, the DBO sector has far greater strategic importance to both sides.
Third, the apparent loss of strategic and military advantage for political gains if the LAC situation is not considered in its entirety. The 489-kilometer LAC has numerous areas where the occupation of dominating heights offers an irrefutable tactical and operational advantage.
Of the present areas where the standoff persists, the priority for India is first to retain its domination of the Kailash range due to the immense operational advantage of dominating Spangur Gap and the Chushul bowl along with rendering the Chinese garrison of Moldo vulnerable.
Restoring Hot Spring-Gogra and Pangong North bank to status quo is secondary. On the other hand, for China, holding its positions and denying access to Depsang are priorities, as they promote their overall and long-term aim of getting to Karakoram Pass.
In relation to Spangur and Moldo being dominated by India, the advantage of Depsang is overriding for China. The present proposal compartmentalises the LAC and focuses only on the Pangong area where China is at a disadvantage. If the pullback happens here, the only leverage to the Chinese domination of Depsang by India dominating Moldo will be lost.
History tells us that two resounding military victories in 1965 and 1971 were not leveraged by India. In 1965, the IA captured Haji Pir pass after a bitter yet successful battle but the Tashkent Agreement gave away this dominating terrain. The return of Haji Pir on the negotiating table has continued to render Indian troops defending the Line of Control (LC) at a disadvantage due to its sheer importance and domination of Poonch and Uri. Pakistan lost Haji Pir militarily but wrested it back during negotiations.
Similarly, in 1971, after the resounding victory by the military in holding 15,000 square kilometres of territory resulting in the creation of Bangladesh and the capture of 93,000 prisoners of war (almost a third of its army), the Simla Agreement of 1972 failed to leverage the tremendous military gains to secure a lasting peace, and literally, gave away the hard-fought advantage.
The agreement did not pin down Pakistan for genocide in East Pakistan, which would have discredited the Pakistani army and eroded it as a political force that it is today, nor did it extract any terms of lasting peace.
Acceptance of the three-step proposal to pull back troops will be a serious error. The disadvantage of moving back heavy equipment in step one itself will render the troops defending Kailash range with minimal fire support.
The overall stability of the LAC with the clearly identified demarcation of a buffer zone extending on both sides of respective claim lines, safeguarding the integrity of our infrastructure, and extracting a commitment of non-aggression from China in the future have to be salient features of any agreement.
The chances of China reneging on any agreement notwithstanding, the military advantage presently held by India must not be squandered yet again for political or short-term gains.
Major General Amrit Pal Singh (Retd) was Divisional Commander of an Army division in Northern command and Chief of Operational Logistics in Ladakh (2011–2013). He has experience in counter-insurgency operations in J&K and conventional operations in Ladakh, and is a co-author of a book Maoist Insurgency and India’s Internal Security Architecture.