File image: Indian Army trucks in Ladakh region (Image: AP Photo)
As far as military disengagement between rivals goes, this must surely be among the most mammoth. Beginning February 11, close to 1.5 lakh troops – about 90,000 Indian soldiers and roughly 60,000 Chinese Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) – will begin the process of reverting to their original positions, such as it existed in March 2020.
Despite mundane soporifics, like "the two sides will push for a mutually acceptable resolution of the remaining issues in a steady and orderly manner,” the withdrawal has not come easy, as can be expected. It was reached after nine intense rounds of border personnel meetings (BPM).
To be sure, disengagement between rival armies locked in a tense standoff for months, is never an easy affair, particularly when the trust deficit is low after the Galwan Valley violence in June last year, which was preceded by the Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA)’s stealth intrusion into Ladakh in early 2020.
Said Srikanth Kondapalli, Professor in Chinese studies at JNU, a fluent mandarin speaker and Visiting Fellow at the Peoples’ University, Beijing, between 1996-1998: ``It is a good outcome on both sides. Status quo has been restored and India has psychologically overcome the setback of the 1962 war.”
In his estimation, India has militarily, politically, and diplomatically given a good account of herself. "Images of China dismantling military infrastructure on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) is a sign that they have not been able to achieve what they have in certain other geographies,” he told this writer.
Nonetheless, Moneycontrol answers some frequently asked, important questions, which need to be told.
What exactly is the disengagement process between India and China?
The disengagement process was finally achieved at the delegation-level meeting on February 9. It finally broke the impasse between the two sides, and a written agreement with guarantees followed. As per the agreement, withdrawal is to be implemented in phases, with Phase 1, centred around the North and South banks of Pangong Tso, already underway.
This phase began with the withdrawal of most of the armour and artillery deployed by either side from the South Bank of the lake by February 11, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, told Parliament. Along with the remaining mechanised units and artillery, the pullback of infantry forces from the standoff sites in the Pangong Tso area is also in progress.
Notably, the PLA has removed the encampments and other fortifications it had built on Fingers 4-8 on the North bank, even as its infantry units have either pulled back to Finger 6 or have been sent further to the rear, east of Sirijap. As part of Phase 1 disengagement, the Chinese must completely pull back to their post just east of Finger 8, where they even built a jetty in 2017. They have also pulled back from features such as Helmet Top, Bump and Point 5155 on the Kailash Range, which they occupied in August 2020.
What is the Indian position?
The Indian Army has pulled back its infantry units to its main post on the North Bank of Pangong Tso at Finger 3, called the Dhan Singh Thapa Post. India has vacated most of the peaks in the Kailash Range that were occupied by the army in late August 2020 as a riposte to the Chinese intrusions, said people familiar with the matter. India is also in the process of removing both troop presence and mechanised units from the standoff sites at Rezang La and Rechin La, the occupation of which had served to put huge pressure on PLA’s Moldo Garrison at Spanggur Tso.
Once disengagement in and around Pangong Tso is verifiably complete, both sides met for a new border personnel meeting to work out disengagement from Patrolling Points at Gogra, Hot Springs, Galwan and Depsang Plains. This meeting concluded finally on February 21 – the tenth such round of talks – but has failed to make any further headway about Chinese occupation in places like Depsang. What is clear, however, that regular patrolling by either side between Finger 4 to Finger 8 may not resume for months. India will eventually return to a small subsidiary post it has long maintained on Finger 4.
It is instructive to remember that India’s claim line is until Finger 4, whereas China’s claim line is till Finger 8, or its proposed 1959 Line of Actual Control, which India rejects. The area between Finger 4 and Finger 8 has always been unoccupied, patrolled by both sides.
Did India give up its hold on Kailash range too early, given that Depsang is yet to be resolved?
India was keen to resolve the Pangong Tso issue first since the sheer number of intruding PLA troops there was much larger than what the Chinese had deployed at Depsang. Military experts say that Depsang had seen a similar standoff back in 2013, which eventually wound down because the PLA could not advance beyond the Nepali Basti area, as the Indian side held the higher positions. That situation applies even now.
What if China rushes back to occupy features on the Kailash Range that have been vacated by India?
That would seem unlikely, given the state of disengagement, with even carefully built infrastructure being removed by the Chinese side and the closely monitored de-induction of troops to the rear. In any case, the Indian Army has contingency plans. It is unlikely to vacate one peak of great strategic importance in the Kailash Range until the disengagement process across Eastern Ladakh is complete.
Did US President Joe Biden play a mediatory role between the two sides?
As a possible coincidence, India and China agreed to end the standoff after the newly elected American President, Joe Biden, had separate chats with both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Another reason for the long wait to disengage could be that China was waiting for the outcome of the US Presidential election and Biden’s stance on the conflict. On February 10, the US pegged India as one of its most important partners in the Indo-Pacific — especially in countering Chinese aggression. Rather than disengaging during Trump’s time and allowing him to further pile on China, Beijing seems to be happy to allow Biden that advantage.
What were other factors that prompted the Chinese withdrawal?
The PLA has been facing a lot of personnel-related issues in eastern Ladakh, not the least of which is casualties due to the extreme cold. One estimate puts the number of daily cold injuries suffered by the PLA during the past few months to over a hundred. With summer still a few weeks away, this would have likely contributed to the Chinese willingness to disengage. As it is, with the Indian side having matched their build up in Ladakh and demonstrated the ability to move pre-emptively, it would have been difficult to predict an outcome if things escalated beyond a point.
Could internal reaction in China have played a role in this disengagement?
The Chinese admission of four deaths in Galwan has caused a storm in that country. Before the focus shifted to ‘national mourning’ and the emotional outpour over the fallen soldiers, an interesting debate erupted on the Chinese internet and social media circles on the efficacy of the disengagement—particularly which side has compromised and by how much.
That China can no longer station troops/patrol between the 4th and 8th Fingers as per the agreement, is seen by many as a real disadvantage. "This is undoubtedly, India's victory on the Northern Bank," argues an anonymous account in a long thread on LAC disengagement at the online military forum, chaojidabenying.net.
Others at the forum, however, tried to counter the gloom by arguing that this was not really a total concession from China. It is at most a ‘tie’ between the two sides, they said. They argue that in the middle of last year, during the Sino-Indian military negotiations, China had already proposed that the two sides disengage from the F4 standoff site equidistantly.
Wrote Antara Ghosal Singh, a researcher at the Centre for Social and Economic Progress (CSEP) and a graduate from Tsinghua University in China, in a column: ``Despite such counterviews, a strong sense of resentment was palpable among Chinese observers, particularly over the perception that the area of actual control under China (that is F4-F8) has now been reduced to a Gray Zone. In the Chinese viewpoint, “The negotiation should have been based on the prevailing situation. The reality before February 10 is that China has controlled Finger 4 to Finger 8. As a part of the disengagement process China should have withdrawn maximum to F5. Besides, the F3 post in India was only established in 2014, so why not India withdraws from it.”
Apparently, peoples’ perception of all things military is different from the defence services themselves.