Published with the kind permission of the author
The joint announcement of Indian Foreign Minister S Jaishankar and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Moscow is like straws for drowning men to clutch. The operative part of the joint statement is that the military commander level talks will continue. The talks are ongoing and do not preclude jockeying and jostling for better positions on the field to assert each sides Lines of Actual Control (LAC). The huge sigh of relief may be premature for talks don’t mean a solution. Right now they only mean a postponement of armed conflict.
We have two outstanding issues between India and China. The larger one is about large tracts of territory in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh. These two territorial disputes are not going to be resolved even in the foreseeable long term. Hence, Deng Xiaoping sagaciously suggested to Rajiv Gandhi in their 1988 meeting at Beijing that it is best left to history. A hundred years ago the situations in both countries and their frontiers were very different. What they will be after another hundred years can be anybody’s guess?
The urgent and pressing dispute on hand is the issue of the two LACs. These LACs frequently overlap. The term LAC was first used by then Chinese PM Zhou Enlai in November 1959 when he wrote to his Indian counterpart Jawaharlal Nehru defining it as "the so-called McMahon Line in the east and the line up to which each side exercises actual control in the west". Nehru rejected this line even after the events of 1962. By this time he was also saddled with a parliamentary resolution pledging to recover all territories occupied by China. Interestingly this LAC did not change very much even after 1962. Zhou even said it was "basically still the line of actual control as existed between the Chinese and Indian sides on 7 November 1959. To put it concretely, in the eastern sector it coincides in the main with the so-called McMahon Line, and in the western and middle sectors it coincides in the main with the traditional customary line which has consistently been pointed out by China.”
The problem is that India and China never agreed on where the LAC was in the Ladakh and middle sectors. The perceptions of what each side “controlled” varied, by a few meters to tens of kilometers. For instance in the Sikkim sector where they vary at a few places, the actual overlap often is a few meters. This variation is because both sides are vying for better tactical positions to locate their bunkers and sangars or small built up structures on higher ground to observe the other side.
In a place like the Depsang plains, the western side of which is with India and the eastern side is with China, the overlap of the LACs is by as much as 20-30 kilometers. Depsang is what separates the northernmost Indian outpost from China’s strategic Tibet-Xinjiang highway cutting across Aksai Chin. It lies in the crook of the elbow the Chip Chap river makes before it joins the Shyok river. DBO overlooks the Chip Chap river as it curls southward to its rendezvous with the Shyok. The entire Chip Chap river was accepted by China as Indian territory even in 1956, but by 1960 China advanced its LAC to about four kilometers of DBO and built an advanced post at Tianwendian about 24 kilometers from DBO in 1959. The PLA launches patrols from here into the contested Depsang. They have done the same in the Galwan valley. In 1960 the Indian post was at the source of the Galwan river at Samzungling, about sixty kilometers upstream from the Point 14 now held by the PLA, about two kilometers upstream of the confluence of the Galwan and Shyok rivers.
Despite having two widely overlapping LACs in Ladakh, Indian and Chinese forces had arrived at a unique modus vivendi since 1962. That is each side will patrol up to its perception of the LAC without confronting the other. India even co-operated to the extent of allowing them to patrol their post 1962 LAC. The desire for peace made both sides to cobble up agreements from time to time. In 1993 the agreement made it incumbent for both sides to caution each other whenever their perceived LACs were crossed. The other side was then obliged to withdraw. This in effect created a no-mans buffer zone. Though the 1993 stipulated that any dispute both sides would jointly check this and decide upon an alignment. But this never happened. Then in 1996 both sides agreed to “exercise restraint when the patrols come face to face”. This agreement also stipulated that both sides would not use firearms or resort to any blasting two kilometers from their perceived LACs. Both sides adhered to this but the patrols while not confronting each other began tailing each other keeping a distance between them. This agreement also obliged both sides not to construct anything of a permanent nature in the overlaps of the two LACs.
This worked till 2013 when the PLA objected to the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) building re-usable shelters in a place called Chumar. In May that year a tailed PLA patrol decided to dig in midway between the two LACs in Depsang at a place called Rakhi Nula when the PLA platoon decided to dig in. The ITBP reported this via their hierarchy to the Home Ministry. By the time the Home Ministry informed the Defence Ministry across the street, some more time elapsed. In the meanwhile the PLA began to supply their dug in platoon using vehicles and helicopters. New Delhi saw this as a major breach and ordered the Army in. The Army then dug in at a point about 300 meters away from the PLA platoon but effectively cutting away retreat. This crisis was resolved by a meeting between the local military commanders with the Indian side agreeing to dismantle the Chumar structures and the PLA pulling out. This led to the more complex 2013 agreement, once again aimed at conflict prevention and conflict resolution, but not deciding on a mutually accepted LAC.
This is where we were when the PLA taking advantage of the Indian security forces sloppiness in not mirroring the annual PLA exercises in the area, dug in positions in the Galwan valley, Hot Springs, Ghogra and the area between Fingers 4 and 8 on the north bank of the Pangong Tso. In Galwan the new PLA position was now less than two kilometers from the modernised 230 kilometers long road from Darbuk to DBO road. The rest is too well known and recent and needs no recounting.
The timing of this couldn’t be worse. India was in the midst of a major economic meltdown brought about by the flow of the Covid19 virus from Wuhan to the rest of the world. It was also after a period of prolonged economic slowdown starting with the “demonetisation” of November 2016. The electronic media, no doubt prodded by the Modi government, went into a fury over the “Chinese perfidy” and PM Modi and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh made fire and brimstone speeches to the troops at Ladakh. The Indian military build-up was under the full glare of the embedded media and the newly acquired military hardware was on display. Even the delivery of the first five Rafale fighters, which included two trainers, was turned into a muscle display show. Now we have a situation where the Indian Army and PLA commanders have been in talks from June 16 seeking a disengagement. The two and fro Kabuki dance continues. The question is here is who withdraws and to where? This requires the determination of a single LAC.
This is beyond the ken of the military commanders of both sides. Military men, even if instructed to find a compromise are usually loathe to withdraw to tactically disadvantageous positions. But the need of the hour is to do just this. This therefore calls for a mediation between the two militaries, and that is best done by a third country military. A neutral military mediator can understand the tactical security concerns of either side and can help in determining the best under the circumstances. This is well beyond the capabilities of professional diplomats.
When the two foreign ministers met in Moscow for the annual Russia, India and China (RIC) meeting, they agreed that the military commanders should settle the issue. RIC is a geo-political grouping originally meant to check the unilateral global impositions of the USA and NATO. The three countries have invested big in RIC and now is the time to make it pay. Moscow is uniquely placed to play the role of a neutral mediator to help the two countries find an agreement on one LAC. Russia has been engaged with both the militaries for decades and knows both sides well. It also enjoys a measure of trust in both countries. One hopes that both countries will find the good sense to utilize Russian mediation to settle this issue.