Everyone from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh downwards might have called the three-week Chinese encampment in eastern Ladakh a “localised” problem, but it was probably anything but that. This is the conclusion Indian officials are leaning towards as they try and read the tea leaves left behind by their uninvited guests on the Depsang plain.
And though opinions still differ, a number of sources believe the incursion by the People's Liberation Army across the Line of Actual Control was China’s way of bringing the border settlement talks — which it’s previous leadership had clearly put on the back burner — back on the agenda.
The signalling by setting up tents in a disputed area was also the Chinese way of telling India to discuss the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA) it had proposed in March. India has yet to reply to the proposals China made.
Contrary to reports in some sections of the media, the BDCA draft does not contain proposals to restrict the construction of border infrastructure. However, the reason why India is yet to respond to the Chinese text is that it wants to carefully study the draft in order to avoid any hidden spring traps that may come alive in future.
The BDCA proposals fall well short of exchanging maps — something India had been pressing for till a decade ago — and focus on expanding talks between ground level troops on the border, besides increasing communication between the two sides at various levels, sources said while not choosing to elaborate any further.
The feeling in Indian circles is that since many high level exchanges are taking place between the two sides, the Chinese intention was to bring the subject to the fore at the high political level, possibly when Premier Li Keqiang visits India. It is likely to be aired during External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid’s China trip beginning later this week.
This perception about Chinese signalling is bolstered by a curious feature about the incursion. The group of tents put up by the Chinese were isolated. There were no support structures between the tents and their forward positions over 15 km away. “We couldn’t fathom why,” confessed the sources.
But there are some doubts too about this theory. The perception that the Chinese were there for strategic reasons could be misplaced. This is because during the first round of diplomatic exchanges at various levels, the Chinese did not appear to be giving the same version. “It’s a bit of a mystery,” said the sources.
Asked if at any point there had been harsh exchanges, the sources said it didn’t come to that except when the Indian Ambassador in Beijing S. Jaishankar told the Chinese that a prolonged stay could impact on bilateral relations.