GP Insights # 468, 14 February 2021
On 10 February, the Hindu referred to a China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin making the following statement: “According to the consensus reached at the Chinese and Indian Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Moscow and the ninth round of commander-level talks between the two sides, the front-line troops of the Chinese and Indian militaries began to conduct simultaneous and planned disengagement in the Pangong Lake area on February 10. We hope the Indian side will work with China to meet each other halfway, strictly implement the consensus reached between the two sides and ensure the smooth implementation of the disengagement process.” The Global Times on the same day referring to a spokesperson at China’s Ministry of National Defense reported: “Frontline troops of the Chinese and Indian armies stationed at the southern and northern banks of the Pangong Tso began simultaneous, scheduled disengagement on Wednesday, in accordance to a consensus reached during the ninth round of corps commander-level meeting.”
On 11 February, the Indian defence minister made a statement in the Parliament; according to him, “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 areas will be removed and the landforms restored.” The defence minister also stated in the Parliament: “I want to assure this House that in these talks we have not conceded anything…It is, therefore, our expectation that the Chinese side will work with us in full sincerity to resolve these remaining issues.”
On 13 February, the Global Times referring to sources wrote again: “China and India are about to implement a disengagement plan under reciprocal principle with the premise that India should firstly withdraw staff who illegally crossed lines on the southern side of the Pangong Tso Lake.”
What is the background?
First, the long military standoff along the Line of Actual Control between India and China. The recent standoff started in May 2020 in Pangong Tso and expanded to other areas of the region in Ladakh. In June 2020, in one of the worst clashes in recent decades, 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese soldiers died in the Galwan valley. There were a few more “provocative military movements to change the status quo” by China in August 2020 in the Pangong Tso region, and “Indian troops pre-empted this PLA activity on the southern bank of Pangong Tso,” according to an Indian military statement. This was one of the longest military standoffs in recent years.
Second, the tough military and political negotiations since May 2020. There were nine rounds of meetings at the military levels, and two political meetings at the highest level (at the defence and foreign ministers level) before reaching the agreement. The present agreement on disengagement seems to have been finally reached at the ninth round held in January 2021.
Third the complex disengagement process and its verification. The negotiations between the two sides had to work hard in agreeing on disengagement to return to pre-standoff period. Who would disengage first, return to where and to which position–seemed to be the crucial questions.
What does it mean?
First carrying out the disengagement, verifying the process, and trust the other side. Given the nine rounds, and the limited information available on the disengagement process, the process would be phased and drawn to the minute level in terms of time and place.
Second, implementing the plan on the ground, of what is finalised in the meeting would be another challenge. Given the technology available, verification is possible. But the challenge would be to build trust. Both sides will have to work at the political and military levels; what happens along the border affects the political relations. Beijing and New Delhi should avoid this from repeating.