Looking ahead after the Ladakh walk back

In the end, the murmurs of an imminent breakthrough after the last round of military-diplomatic talks between India and China on January 24 were finally confirmed last week when Beijing made the announcement of the start of disengagement between the two armies, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Indian Army, in Ladakh. New Delhi followed suit the next day with a selectively detailed announcement by the Defence Minister in Parliament, where he again took no questions, confirming that the two Himalayan neighbours had started walking back from the brink in Ladakh. This is not the end of the 10-month-old military stand-off yet but, palpably, the beginning of the end. It is a welcome move because heightened tensions between the two nuclear-armed Asian powers serve no useful purpose for anyone, certainly not India’s.

Political priority

The current disengagement is limited to two places on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh: north bank of Pangong lake and Kailash range to the south of Pangong. There are three other sites of contention on the Ladakh border where the PLA had come in — Depsang, Gogra-Hot Springs and Demchok — and talks will be held to resolve these after the current phase of disengagement is completed. There have been regular clashes between the soldiers of both sides at the north bank of Pangong lake, and nearly a quarter of all the Chinese transgressions on the LAC between 2014 and 2019 have taken place in the area. It has limited strategic importance, but is a popular tourist spot after the climax of the superhit Hindi film, 3 Idiots , was shot there.

Moreover, unlike other areas of contestation, there are habitations in the vicinity of the north bank which can observe any Chinese ingress. These sightings have been reported by the elected Ladakhi representatives to the media, including in this newspaper, to the embarrassment of the central government which has been keen on keeping the news of Chinese control of Indian territory off the news cycle and out of public sight.

This means the disengagement at north bank was a political priority — imagine the impact of tourists visiting the area again to signal normalcy — and led to it being clubbed with the Kailash range to the south of the lake. While Chinese troops had moved into the Indian side of the LAC in the other areas, the Kailash range was the only place where Indians had taken the initiative to hold hitherto unoccupied peaks in end-August. A heavy deployment of troops and tanks caught the Chinese by surprise who responded by their own deployment, with the two sides separated by a few yards.

A stance that is unclear

With soldiers and tanks in eyeball range, the Kailash range was a tinderbox that could spark off a much bigger crisis with a minor accident. The Chinese have been insistent in the talks that the two sides disengage from this area first. Knowing that this was the only leverage it had, New Delhi had resisted taking that call until now, instead seeking a simultaneous resolution of all the flashpoints on the Ladakh border. In its statement, the government has not clarified the reasons for its change of stance which was clearly dictated by something more than the desire to remove the most dangerous flashpoint on the border.

Even though it does not restore the status quo ante of April 2020 and the details about the south bank are sketchy, the disengagement deal on the two banks of Pangong is a fair deal for India when seen from the limited prism of only these areas. But when considered from the perspective of the whole LAC in Ladakh, it raises questions about the wisdom of giving up the only leverage India had for the sake of disengagement at north bank.

Depsang issue, buffer zones

The Indian military leadership is aware of the strategic importance of the Depsang plains in the Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) sector, not only due to its proximity to the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie (DSDBO) road, the DBO airstrip and the Karakoram Pass, but because of the threat it poses to Indian control over the Siachen glacier. This remains the only area on the Indian landmass where China and Pakistan can physically collude militarily, and has been identified by former northern army commanders as tough to defend in case of a Chinese military attack. The excuse that the Depsang problem precedes the current crisis on the LAC and thus must be treated separately holds little water, for it would be in India’s interest to club them together and find a holistic solution. Moreover, even the current crisis on the north bank of Pangong lake has been there since at least October 2019 though it flared up substantially in May 2020.

The current disengagement plan provides us with a window into the mindset of the Indian decision makers who prefer the creation of a ‘no patrol’ zone or buffer zone as a solution to the tensions on the LAC. Before the buffer zone was created at the north bank of Pangong, a similar buffer zone was created in Galwan in July 2020 around the place where India lost 20 soldiers in a deadly clash a month earlier. That buffer zone has held good till date, even though it denies India access to the areas up to PP14 which it patrolled earlier. There are worries that such buffer zones would lie majorly on the Indian side of the LAC, thus converting a hitherto Indian-controlled territory into a neutral zone.

A no patrol zone has not been announced, at least publicly by the Defence Minister, for the Kailash range and that exposes the limitations of any plan to create such buffer zones in all the contentious border areas for the sake of peace and tranquility on the LAC. Owing to the disputed nature of the border and a lack of trust between the two sides, any perceived violations of ‘no patrol’ zones can lead to deadly outcomes as seen in Galwan on June 15, 2020. At best, these buffer zones can provide a temporary reprieve but are no alternative to the mutual delineation of the LAC and a final settlement of the Sino-Indian boundary.

A power differential

As the Indian media highlighted the rapid pace of the PLA’s withdrawal from disengagement sites, obliquely suggesting a Chinese weakness, the response from Chinese experts was in the form of a threat. Qian Feng, director of the research department at the National Strategy Institute at Tsinghua University was quoted in the Global Times saying that if the PLA can withdraw this many armaments and ground forces in one day, it can also return equally swiftly. It goes to the nub of New Delhi’s weakness vis-à-vis Beijing: India does not have the military capacity and the political will to evict the Chinese troops out of its territory. Because of the power differential with China, India’s best-case scenario is to deploy sufficient troops to prevent any PLA ingress as was done with a massive deployment on the LAC after May 2020. The option of undertaking a prompt quid pro quo military operation in Chinese territory, as advocated by the Non-alignment 2.0 strategy document produced by Centre for Policy Research in 2012 (https://bit.ly/37BGGTB), contains escalatory risks which an India in economic recession lacks the appetite for.

The enduring impact

The Ladakh border crisis of 2020 will leave a lasting impact on India’s strategic calculus. The political imperative of defending every inch of territory, while lacking the wherewithal to reverse a Chinese ingress, is likely to favour an enhanced deployment of the Indian Army all along the LAC, from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh. Not only will it stretch the Army, it would divert scarce resources towards the continental border away from the maritime domain. With India’s attractiveness to the United States and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, better known as the Quad, firmly anchored in the Indian Ocean, such a move would work to China’s advantage. It is another matter that having struck a disengagement deal with China, New Delhi itself may no longer be as enthusiastic about the Quad as it was a couple of months ago when the Chinese threat was imminent. Will it lead to a reset of ties with Beijing?

By seeking the restoration of peace and tranquillity on the LAC instead of a reversion to the status quo ante as of April 2020, the Narendra Modi government has made a political choice in Ladakh. It will have to bear the strategic consequences of that choice.

Sushant Singh is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research. The views expressed are personal

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Printable version | Jun 27, 2022 12:59:00 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/looking-ahead-after-the-ladakh-walk-back/article33854596.ece