Author : Manoj Joshi

Originally Published 2023-06-06 15:31:46 Published on Jun 06, 2023
Beijing needs to consider whether it wants to keep the pot boiling at the border
No-patrol zones can ease LAC tensions
Three years ago, on this day, India and China began a series of Corps Commander-level talks at their border meeting point in the Chushul sector opposite the Chinese post at Moldo. The talks were aimed at reversing the Chinese buildup of troops along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh and preventing Indian forces from patrolling the border to the extent of their claims. These were in violation of the Sino-Indian agreements and protocols dating back to 1993.
Delhi has signalled that it will match the Chinese buildup, while entering into a wider partnership with the US in the Indo-Pacific.
There have since been 18 such rounds of talks, the last in April this year. The Chinese side has consistently refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing and has instead accused the Indian side of crossing the LAC and carrying out ‘provocative’ actions and violating agreements. On June 6, 2020, though, India and China had agreed on a sequence of ‘disengagement’ of forces, followed by ‘de-escalation’. In the first stage, troops close to each other would disengage and subsequently, the two sides would remove the additional forces that had been brought in. But the expectations were soon rudely shattered. At first, everything seemed to be on course. On June 12, 2020, local military commanders agreed to a pullback of forces by 1 km each to prevent any untoward incident in the Galwan Valley where the Chinese had intruded to India’s Patrolling Point (PP) 14. But then things went out of control. On June 15, shortly after sunset, there was a fracas lasting several hours; the two sides used fists and stones next to the fast-flowing and ice-cold Galwan river. By daybreak (June 16), 20 Indian soldiers and reportedly four Chinese personnel were dead. These were the first casualties since 1975 on the militarised LAC and hence, the incident generated a shockwave across the country. Both governments made efforts to minimise the seriousness of the situation. Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that no one had intruded across the border and no Indian post had been captured. The Chinese quietly returned more than 100 Indian soldiers they had captured with their arms within three days. Two weeks later, on July 5, the two sides moved back 1.5 km each from the point of the clash and left a ‘no-patrol zone’ in between. Expectations that the disengagement or de-escalation process would now be applied to the other points where the Chinese had established blockades were soon belied. Tough negotiations and a counter-move by India to occupy the Kailash heights overlooking Spanggur Tso led to the next disengagement at the end of January 2021, following the ninth round of talks. The two sides pulled back and created a 10-km-wide ‘no-patrol zone” between Fingers 4 and 8 in the north bank of Pangong Tso. India also agreed to leave the Kailash heights. It was another six months before an agreement was reached, after the 12th round of talks in July 2021, regarding disengagement near the Gogra Post (PP-17A), where the Changlung river joins the Kugrang. But the overall decision for the Chinese to lift their blockade in the other areas of the Kugrang river (PP-15 and 16) happened only a year later after the 16th round of talks on July 17, 2022. As usual, a ‘no-patrol zone’ was created involving pullback by both the Indian and the Chinese sides. It is now nearly three years, and two more areas of blockades (conveniently described as ‘friction points’ by the Indian military brass) remain. One is on the Charding-Ninglung Nullah in southern Ladakh and the other on the Depsang Bulge in the north. The first is an important area that affects the Indian military posture in Demchok. The other is where a Chinese blockade has prevented our forces from patrolling its PPs 10, 11, 11A, 12 and 13 involving some 900 sq km of territory. This is an area about which the government has not provided much detail, and it is obvious why. In April, the two sides held their 18th round of talks but they failed to make headway. It later transpired that the Chinese have been demanding a huge ‘no-patrol zone’ of 15-20 km. Presumably, they want the zone to begin from the Y Junction on the Raki Nullah where they have established their blockade. Such a zone would be wholly in territory claimed by India; more importantly, it would seriously undermine the security of the road that links Daulat Beg Oldi with the rest of Ladakh. India and China have handled the Ladakh issue with considerable care and subtlety. This is so despite the unequal encounter arising from their varying objectives — the Chinese on the offensive, and the Indians on the defensive. Both sides have had opportunities to escalate but have chosen not to do so. Both have kept up their interaction and dialogue at the military and diplomatic levels. This process suggests that they could now be working towards a new modus vivendi. This could involve the creation of no-patrol zones in all 18 or 20 areas where their claims on the LAC overlap. If so, a major cause of conflict along the LAC will come down. But this depends entirely on Chinese aims. Till now, they have sought to maintain a dominant position along the disputed LAC and wanted India to freeze that status. But New Delhi has made it clear that it will match the Chinese buildup (in Tibet), even while entering into a wider partnership with the US in the Indo-Pacific. Beijing now needs to consider whether it really wants the border to remain live.
This commentary originally appeared in The Tribune.
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Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow at the ORF. He has been a journalist specialising on national and international politics and is a commentator and ...

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