With the pullback of Indian and Chinese troops from Hot Spring-Gogra now, after over two years, the militaries have disengaged from the four areas designated as the friction points because of the tussle that started in May 2020. But does this mean a resolution of sorts? Not at all. Using the term “resolved” while talking about the areas where the disengagement has taken place would be misleading. A withdrawal of 2-3 km doesn’t mean much if one is to understand the larger picture.
In the early stages of the disengagement that took place in Galwan and Pangong Tso, a senior army officer told me, “They haven’t come all the way with a massive military build-up to go back.”
This summed up back then to me how disengagement or a withdrawal of a few kilometres was more about symbolism and less about a resolution.
NO CLARITY ON TERMS AND CONDITIONS
The ambiguity around these disengagements, the lack of detail or clarity from both sides, is a further giveaway that there is nothing much to offer.
The big question everybody wants to know is, is this disengagement advantage India or China? Does this really amount to China being forced to move back?
The disengagement has led to the creation of buffer zones. This means both sides will not go up to the identified friction point for patrolling. The result is no ugly fist fights between the two sides. No confrontation because of no patrolling by Indian soldiers claiming to physically claim land in disputed areas looks like an advantage for China in the long run.
This effectively could lead to a new line of actual control and that’s what the Chinese want. So while India has been calling for the restoration of the status quo as of April 2020, a new status quo is emerging.
Blocking Indian patrols in several areas by force and a moratorium or a freeze on patrolling by both sides in the case of these friction points ensure the Indian access to Akshai Chin is permanently cut off as it creates a new line.
So while the four identified friction points were Patrol Point 14 (Galwan), Patrol Point 15, Kurang Nalla (being referred to as Hot Spring-Gogra), Patrol Point 17 A (Gogra) and Pangong Lake.
Patrol Points are spots identifiable on the map as the limit of patrolling for Indian troops.
CHINA BLOCKING PATROLS
The Depsang plains that have been a trouble spot since 2013 was, in fact, the first place where the Chinese blocked Indian patrols when the tussle started in May 2020 but, for some reason, was not included in the friction points. The Chinese are still adamant not to discuss Depsang and Demchock despite India’s insistence.
In a counter-offensive to China’s aggression on the north bank of the Pangong Lake, the Indian Army had held on to critical heights on the southern side of the lake, surprising the Chinese in August 2020. This gave India a big tactical advantage to dominate China’s Moldo garrison.
However, the Indian Army vacated the heights on the Kailash Range as part of the disengagement plan for Finger Area (mountain spurs jutting into the lake on the northern bank) where a build-up from both sides had threatened a military clash.
Since then, China has been building a bridge connecting the north and south banks of the Pangong Lake, ensuring quick mobility of its forces to cross from one end to another. The bridge will facilitate quick induction as it will cut down the distance and time to reach the contested areas at the Pangong Lake and will also connect the two banks allowing Chinese forces easy access on either side to combat any threat.
There have been 16 rounds of Corps Commander-level talks between Indian and Chinese military delegations in Ladakh but the status quo ante as of April 2020 that India has been seeking is nowhere in sight. It has ensured a piecemeal disengagement but not found a breakthrough for larger resolution.
On June 6, 2020, the Corps Commander-level meet took place for the first time to resolve the standoff and brewing tensions between the two nuclear powers. What was expected to be a dialogue to find a resolution has turned out to be an exercise to ensure there are no flare-ups. As the situation continues, this could be the new status quo.