India-China military talks hit a roadblock
According to top officials who spoke to HT on Friday on the condition of anonymity, the Indian Army has asserted that the sanctity of the LAC is non-negotiable.Updated: Aug 15, 2020 06:28 IST
Military talks with China on reducing tensions along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) have hit a roadblock, with the Indian Army taking the hard line with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as it (the former) seeks to restore the status quo ante of early April in eastern Ladakh.
According to top officials who spoke to HT on Friday on the condition of anonymity, the Indian Army has asserted that the sanctity of the LAC is non-negotiable. The comments came on a day when defence minister Rajnath Singh assured the armed forces that India will not hesitate to deliver a “befitting reply” to any attacks from a foreign power.
Five rounds of top-level military talks have failed to break the deadlock due to serious differences between India and China that flared following transgressions by the PLA earlier this summer. “Talks are stuck in a stalemate because of the India Army’s insistence that the PLA must withdraw to positions held by it as of April 2020, and the Chinese reluctance to restore status quo ante in some areas,” said one of the officials cited above.
The Finger Area—a set of eight cliffs jutting out of Sirijap range overlooking Pangong Lake—has emerged as the hardest part of the disengagement process with little hope of immediate resolution. Disengagement has progressed somewhat smoothly at friction points in Galwan Valley and Hot Springs, but its pace remains sluggish in Gogra area.
“The Indian Army has clearly told the PLA that shifting of the LAC in any area is not acceptable. This was most recently conveyed on August 2, when corps commanders from the two sides met. There is no question of us budging,” said a second official.
There is growing consensus among Indian officials and China experts that military talks are unlikely to deliver further results, and the resolution of the issue will require political and diplomatic intervention.
“The PLA is facing unanticipated consequences of its misadventure in Ladakh because of the Indian Army’s strong response. It will ultimately have to look for a face-saving exit strategy. We have made preparations for a long haul,” said a third official.
De-escalation along the disputed border can only begin after complete disengagement between the two armies on the LAC. The ground situation remains unchanged in Ladakh sector, where both armies have deployed almost 100,000 soldiers and weaponry in their forward and depth areas.
On Friday,a day ahead of Independence Day, defence minister Singh delivered a radio message to the armed forces, saying that the country believes in winning hearts and not land. “But it does not mean we will let our self-esteem be hurt. If enemy country attacks us, then we will give a befitting reply like every time,” he added.
The Union external affairs ministry separately said that several meetings of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination (WMCC) on border affairs and corps commanders had discussed the implementation of the disengagement process and “further steps to ensure it is completed at the earliest”.
Ministry spokesperson Anurag Srivastava noted both sides had made “some progress” after reaching agreement on the broad principles of disengagement, but more needs to be done. He said “translating these principles on ground is a complex process that requires redeployment of troops by each side towards their regular posts on their respective sides of the LAC”.
On August 10, chief of defence staff Gen Bipin Rawat informed a committee of lawmakers that de-escalation in Ladakh could be a long-drawn process but the Indian military is prepared for this and has made all arrangement for the long haul through the harsh winter.
“Our position is unambiguous – status quo ante has to be restored and we will not accept any shifting of the LAC. The ball is in China’s court now. Achieving our goal will take time and we will have to be patient,” said Lt Gen (retired) Vinod Bhatia, a former director general of military operations.
The August 2 military negotiations between corps commanders came three days after Chinese ambassador Sun Weidong said his country’s traditional boundary line on the northern bank of Pangong Lake was in accordance with the LAC and there was no case of Beijing expanding its territorial claim.
Sun’s contention was a clear indication of the Chinese hard line on its claims in the Finger Area. Before PLA grabbed positions on Finger Four overlooking Indian deployments, the Indian Army would patrol right up to Finger Eight that New Delhi considers within Indian territory.
The new positions held by PLA have curtailed the scope of Indian patrols. Fingers Four and Eight are 8 km apart.
During a visit to Ladakh on July 17, defence minister Rajnath Singh said progress in negotiations should help resolve the border dispute but added he “couldn’t guarantee to what extent the situation will be resolved”.
The sizeable Chinese troop presence at friction points, particularly Pangong Lake and Depsang, remains a concern, with Beijing yet to deliver on understandings regarding disengagement reached during the July 5 phone conversation of the Special Representatives on the border issue and meetings of corps commanders.