On the India-China Border, Disengagement Is Not Resolution

Only a return to the status quo of May 2020 means resolution. Disengagement certainly isn’t.

India and China issued a joint statement on Tuesday after senior military commanders of both sides completed the 19th round of talks on border issues in Ladakh on Sunday and Monday. This is the eighth time the two sides have been able to issue a joint statement after the talks in the past three years. Even though Beijing has made no concessions on the ground, many see the joint statement itself as a sign of progress; for them, the use of words like “positive” “constructive” “open” and “forward-looking” in the statement would be an even bigger achievement.

The reasons for such an interpretation are obvious. Primarily, there was the threat that China’s President Xi Jinping would refuse to turn up for the G20 summit; after all, Beijing has not posted an ambassador to India for over 10 months. Portraying that China was in a conciliatory mood or committing to resolving “the remaining issues in an expeditious manner” can justify the staging of bilateral meetings between Narendra Modi and Xi on the sidelines of the BRICS summit at Johannesburg next week and the G20 summit in New Delhi next month. Modi can then be spared an embarrassment, like when he was caught on camera approaching Xi at Bali during the G20 summit dinner. The foreign secretary then claimed it was just a meet and greet moment, but in the readout of a recent meeting between Ajit Doval and Wang Yi, Beijing revealed that the two leaders had spoken of the need to stabilise ties. The Modi government was then forced to acknowledge that it had skipped mentioning this in its answers to journalists during the press briefing after the Bali summit.

If a meeting between Modi and Xi helps resolve the border crisis, there could be nothing better for India and the region. The operative word here is “resolve”, because this is the most worrying part of the latest joint statement. Consider this bit: “discussion on the resolution of remaining issues along the LAC in the Western sector”. Ipso facto, this implies that many issues have been resolved on the Ladakh border between the two sides, a phrasing that has been recently used by external affairs minister S. Jaishankar as well. These areas of Chinese ingress, or “friction points” as Jaishankar calls them, which stand resolved as per this description are: Galwan, Gogra, Kugrang valley (widely misreported as Hot Springs), the north bank of Pangong lake and the Kailash range.

What has happened at these places is only disengagement, which means that soldiers from both armies who were deployed in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation have stepped back by a few kilometres. Separating them is a buffer zone or a not-patrol area, which is believed to be mostly in the areas Indian soldiers were patrolling till May 2020. This is nothing close to resolution, which means a return to status quo ante bellum, the situation as it existed before the crisis began in 2020. That would mean de-escalation, where additional forces step back to their semi-permanent bases 100-150 km away, and finally de-induction, where additional troops that came into the Ladakh sector are sent back to their peacetime locations.

The Chinese have publicly refused to accept any return to status quo ante bellum, and there has been no worthwhile conversation in these 19 rounds about de-escalation and de-induction from Ladakh. Indian forces continue to be denied access to 26 of the 65 patrolling points (many of them well inside the LAC on the Indian side), including in the areas where disengagement has taken place. Disengagement is a welcome exercise as a military expedient to reduce the risk of escalation by separating the soldiers of two armies, but it is nowhere near resolution.

That the Chinese would want to depict disengagement as resolution is understandable because it is to their advantage, but why the Modi government is agreeing to such a proposition is hard to grasp. After all, it has witnessed this play in Doklam in 2017. After Modi and Xi met in Germany during the Doklam crisis, the two sides announced disengagement – again portrayed as “resolution” by the Indian government – that allowed Modi to travel to China for the BRICS summit. A few months later, the government was forced to acknowledge in Parliament that the Chinese had stepped back by a few hundred metres and constructed massive military infrastructure in the area. Meanwhile, Indian soldiers had returned to their original deployment positions under the disengagement plan.

No one wants to see a repeat of the Doklam “resolution” in Ladakh. Let there be no doubt that only a return to the status quo of May 2020 means resolution. Disengagement certainly isn’t. The price for mistaking disengagement for resolution in Ladakh will be too heavy for India to afford.

This piece was first published on The India Cable – a premium newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas – and has been republished here. To subscribe to The India Cable, click here.