Will China have its way in Ladakh de-escalation?

By not accusing China of intrusions and putting the onus for talks on the army, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, who is the special representative for border talks, are shirking their responsibilities. This could be by design to blame the army for any territorial compromise forced by the government, writes Lt Gen Prakash Katoch (retd) for South Asia Monitor


The eighth senior military commanders-level India-China talks held at Chushul on November 6 has generated speculation about an imminent breakthrough. India’s Chief of Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat, says flare-up at the border with China cannot be discounted but the Army chief, General M M Naravane, has said the situation is stable and expressed hope that “we will be able to reach an agreement that is mutually acceptable and beneficial in keeping with the overarching policy guidelines.”

The five-point agreement between foreign ministers of India and China at Moscow is no different from previous  agreements, all of which China violated: the 1993 Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the LAC; the 1996 Agreement on CBMs (Confidence-building measures) in the Military Field along the LAC (Line of Actual Control): the 2005 Protocol on the Modalities for Implementation of CBMs in Military Field along the LAC; the 2005 Agreement on Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for Settlement of China-India Boundary Question; the 2012 Establishment of Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on China-India Border Affairs; and; the 2013 Border Defense Cooperation Agreement.

China’s illegal occupation

Indian media talks of a three-step disengagement plan: remove temporary structures and People's Liberation Army (PLA) deployments between Finger 4 and Finger 8 north of Pangong Lake which both sides cannot patrol thereafter; pull back tanks and artillery from the faceoff, withdrawing them to depth areas; and, after the first two steps hold more discussions for India to withdraw from Kailash Range and heights in Chushul area occupied on the night August 29-30. 

China’s state media has trashed these reports saying, “Indian media reports that detailed arrangements for a proposed disengagement plan are being discussed and finalized by Chinese and Indian militaries are inaccurate and not helpful for the two sides to reach their established goals.”

China loses nothing by removing structures between Finger 4 and Finger 8 because Indian patrols would not be allowed beyond Finger 4, which they were patrolling earlier. As for withdrawing tanks and artillery, PLA has better border infrastructure and approachability especially south of Pangong Lake. Withdrawing from Kailash Range and heights around Chushul (both Indian territories) will be a strategic disaster for India irrespective of verification measures - an invitation for PLA to occupy these.  

China is an atheist demon but Kailash Range is sacred to Hindus as they believe that Mount Kailash is the abode of Lord Shiva. China is in illegal occupation of enclaves of Minsar (Men ser) near Lake Manasarovar and consists of Darchen (Dar Chen) Labrang near Mount Kailash, both used by Indians and Bhutanese pilgrims. China has desecrated Lake Manasarovar area with recent PLA deployments.

For the Indian government with its Hindutva agenda, vacating Kailash Range should be unacceptable. Ironically, PLA’s deepest intrusion in Depsang finds no mention with ‘sponsored’ scribes spinning stories that only ‘permanent’ enemy structures (not temporary) denote intrusions and PLA keeps coming and going there. 

Little investment from India

India has invested little in the military including over the past six years, besides showing more respect to policemen over soldiers, which is continuing. The 'deep-state' positions senior officials hold who meekly follow the master and don’t stand up for soldiers beyond rhetorical statements. The defense minister, Rajnath Singh, who as home minister, went out of his way to benefit police forces, doesn’t do the same for soldiers, hoping he is not sidelined after the 2024 general elections.

China has been observing all this and ‘may’ have hinted ‘disengagement’ from Depsang if India first withdraws from Kailash-Chushul heights. China will not keep its promise and the option of limited war on a wide front remains.

China bothers little about the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi calling for respecting each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity at SCO’s (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) virtual summit or foreign minister warning during East Asia Summit.

China views pressure building on India from China-Pakistan collusion, CPEC (China–Pakistan Economic Corridor) and Pakistan changing the status of Gilgit-Baltistan; Nepal in Beijing’s lap; CMEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) in Myanmar; agreement for China to use Bangladeshi ports; Beijing’s influence in Sri Lanka including China building another port in Sri Lanka; China chairing SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) 2.0 minus India and Bhutan; and 15 nations inking the RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) including Quad members Japan and Australia. To China’s joy the new Pentagon chief Christopher Miller has called for the early exit of the US troops from Afghanistan.   

India’s timid foreign policy

Settling of borders by the military implies giving them a free hand, which was never the case in India beyond political statements. Were that the case, there would have been adequate deployment in Ladakh and PLA intrusions repulsed in May-June itself. Were it not for timid foreign policy, Pakistan’s proxy war would have been transported back into POK (Pakistan Occupied Kashmir)-Pakistan; Gilgit-Baltistan would have risen against Pakistan and CPEC denied.

India's Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), the external intelligence agency, could have turned the United Wa State Army (UWSA) in Myanmar against Beijing because of the genocide in Tibet instead of UWSA becoming China’s proxy and enough trouble could be generated in Xinjiang in response to China meddling in our northeast.     

India has not accused China directly for the Ladakh invasion. Demand for China reverting to pre-April positions too have vanished.

Onus on Army for talks

By not accusing China of intrusions and putting the onus for talks on the army, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, who is the special representative for border talks, are shirking their responsibilities. This could be by design to blame the army for any territorial compromise forced by the government. The political hierarchy could then play business as usual with Beijing.

For example, the government may have decided to concede China’s 1959 claim line because of which Depsang doesn’t figure in talks. Slogans that we will not give even an inch of our territory and Aksai Chin is ours will however continue.

(The author is an Indian Army veteran. The views expressed are personal) 

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