In Ladakh, be cautious | HT Editorial
In a statement in Parliament, defence minister Rajnath Singh laid out the background of the border dispute with China, the contours of the standoff in eastern Ladakh since last year, and most crucially, the details of a breakthrough in talks between the two sides, leading to the beginning of a process of disengagement in the Pangong Tso area. Mr Singh said that forward deployments would be stopped in a “phased, coordinated and verified manner”. The Chinese side would keep its presence east of Finger 8, while India would maintain its permanent base near Finger 3. Similar action would be taken on the southern banks. Structures built by the two sides, both on the northern and southern banks, would be removed. There would be a “temporary moratorium” on military activities, including patrolling in traditional areas, which will recommence only after military and diplomatic talks. The implementation of this process began on Wednesday, and, Mr Singh said, it would “substantially” restore the situation to that existing prior to the standoff. And senior commanders would meet 48 hours after this process of disengagement to take up the dispute in other friction areas.
This is a breakthrough. And the government must be applauded for using a mix of four instruments — direct engagement, strong military build-up, economic measures, and international partnerships — in keeping the pressure on China. As former foreign secretary Shyam Saran wrote in this newspaper on the day the disengagement began, Beijing had boxed itself into a corner, underestimated Indian resolve, and was looking for ways to extricate itself. A mix of hard messaging and pragmatism has helped India over the past year in forcing China to backtrack — and remember Beijing has backtracked, for it had violated agreements and overstepped in Pangong Tso.
At the same time, it is crucial that the government insist on the restoration of status quo ante. This would mean the resumption of patrolling rights till Finger 8 in due course. It also must monitor the extent of Chinese withdrawal, for remobilisation can’t be ruled out. India must maintain its position on all other friction points, including Depsang which is of strategic value. And it must retain some form of military leverage — remember, taking control of the heights on the southern banks changed the game — to force China to abide by the understanding.