It took several flag meetings on the ground and much diplomatic energy on both sides but the abatement of tension near the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh came not a day too soon. The Chinese troops who had set up tented positions around Daulat Beg Oldi inside Indian territory some three weeks ago have withdrawn; Indian troops who pitched their tents in response to this provocation have also withdrawn. The Chinese withdrawal may be a victory for diplomacy but it is important to remember that the Depsang Plain, located in a far corner of Ladakh, has only reverted to being what it was — part of the unsettled portion of the LAC between India and China. What that means is that India and China need to make a push for resolving the boundary question quickly. As a first step, completing the process of exchanging maps depicting each side’s understanding of where the LAC lies is crucial. Unless this happens, such disputes are likely to arise again, and strain the entire gamut of ties. Thanks to the stand-off, Indian public opinion has become suspicious of Chinese intentions to the point of making irrelevant the important progress achieved in the bilateral relationship over the past decade. The proposed visit by Chinese premier Li Keqiang later this month — and the preparatory visit by External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid to Beijing this week — will be important for restoring a measure of confidence in the relationship.
It is still unclear what caused the People’s Liberation Army to move troops into the Depsang Plain. There is speculation that it might have done so to convey its displeasure at the recent infrastructure development undertaken by India in Ladakh. Given that a diplomatic mechanism already exists to regulate and draw down mutual deployments along the LAC, it would be unwise for any stakeholder on the Chinese side to try and unilaterally force an outcome through provocative actions. Indeed, Beijing must realise that its attempts to resolve long-standing disputes with countries across Asia through coercive tactics will only rebound on itself. As in Japan and South East Asia, in India too such methods are bound to strengthen those who advocate joining hands with the United States in its efforts to counter Beijing’s influence in this region. Of course, the Indian champions of this strategy must realise that notwithstanding the American “pivot to Asia,” the Ladakh stand-off did not so much as elicit a murmur from the U.S. or its allies. This episode has been confirmation, if any was required, that India’s foreign policy, while answering to what is best for the country, must be able to stand on its own feet.