The reported disengagement of troops and partial pull back at multiple points was a good news on Tuesday, indicating a de-escalatory trend in standoff, amidst rhetoric and escalation dynamics. It shows some usefulness of Confidence Building Measures (CBM) and established ”Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity Agreement, 1993. It also exhibited important role of military diplomacy in resolving border issues having military implications. It is however not the end of standoff, as further talks between the two armies are to be held this week commencing from Wednesday in Hot Spring area, for easing out the situation at multiple locations including Galwan area and Pangong Tso.
Why do Standoff Happen?
China does not recognise the border agreement between British India and Tibet of 1914. In absence of any border treaty between PRC and India post-independence, both countries have own perception of Line of Actual Control (LAC) and in certain areas these perception overlap. Both sides patrol areas up to own perception of LAC; hence in overlapping areas, it is termed as transgression by opposite side. In most transgressions troops patrol and go back to their bases. In case the troops do not go back and make arrangements to stay in particular areas claiming to be their own, it leads to standoff, as the opposing side is also under compulsion to do the same, which is the case in Pongong Tso and most of the earlier standoffs along LAC. In case of Galwan valley, it”s a case of relatively fresh claims, leading to similar action by Indian troops leading to face-off.
Why a standoff happened in Ladakh?
China has developed its infrastructure up to LAC much earlier, but it wants to deny the same to India, which is only trying to catch up, to protect its sovereign territory. The trigger for this face-off in Ladakh was China”s opposition to Indian road building activity in the Finger area around the Pangong Tso Lake, the road connecting the Darbuk-Shayok-Daulat Beg Oldie in Galwan Valley. China feels that this infrastructure development will make their strategic roads and positions vulnerable and put them at disadvantage. After a few scuffles at few points along LAC earlier in May, which were cases of response to transgressions, China transgressed at multiple points with large number of troops, pitched tents and made some bunkers. Indian troops have also positioned themselves in large numbers which led to a standoffs at multiple places in Galwan Area and at Finger 4 in Pangong Tso area. This was followed by some military build-up by both side, as both sides got ready for longer standoff. Indian Army continued with infrastructure development in its own territory, during faceoff and local level talks, to support important posts like DBO and Hot spring.
What are the Complications and likely Solution?
Resolving border problem is a complicated matter because in absence of a Border Treaty or Agreement, both countries read history as it suits them. Over decades, and 22 rounds of talks, the positions have hardened, with national sentiments attached with it. The demarcation of LAC is doable, but Chinese continue to drag their feet in doing so, as they fear that it will become de facto border, forcing them to forego their claims made in 1960, including Tawang. India will not like to lose claim over Aksai Chin. Certainly this is not the first or last transgression and standoff, which will continue to happen, unless the LAC is demarcated. In long term, therefore, it will get resolved only when the political cost of not resolving it, will become higher than the cost of resolving it.
In the short term, I am sure China and India do not want a war; hence will like to resolve it by talks. The problem with standoffs is that a graceful disengagement becomes difficult, as no side wants to blink first. This incidence has shown the utility of Military Diplomacy” in such sensitive problems. They have resolved some problems and are progressing to resolve the rest in next few meetings. India seems to be firm on ground so far, ready to protect its territory despite rhetoric, Chinese coercion and information warfare. We might need more confidence building mechanisms to avoid fist fights, as the current mechanisms have avoided bullets, but not manhandling of each other. This also has to be a subject of future talks.
(The writer is Major General S.B. Asthana, SM, VSM (Veteran). The views expressed are personal views of the author, who also retains the copyright.