Decoding the key lessons from LAC disengagement
India has understood that China’s peaceful rise is over and that an unresolved border will remain a flashpoint. So, India must build up its military to deter China from attempting any misadventure at LAC
In a surprise announcement on September 8, India and China declared they had started the disengagement process from Patrol Point 15 (PP 15). The disengagement process involves pulling troops back and creating a buffer zone neither side can patrol. With this latest agreement, disengagement in Eastern Ladakh has now been completed at Galwan (PP14), Gogra-Hot Springs (PP 15 and 17), and the North and South Banks of Pangong Tso. At each of these places, buffer zones have been established.
There have been some media reports that the buffer zones have been set up entirely on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC); therefore, it is only Indian territory that has been lost. It cannot be stated with any certainty that this is true because, except on the north bank of Pangong Tso, the geographical limits of the buffer zones have not been publicly spelt out. The buffer zone on the north bank lies between the Indian and Chinese claims — Finger 8 and Finger 4, respectively — and is equally advantageous or disadvantageous to both sides. An NDTV report based on the latest satellite imagery shows that the Chinese have withdrawn 3 km from their position at PP 15. The relocation of the Indian post in this area is unknown, but Indian Army sources have stated that patrolling limits of both sides are equidistant from PP 15.
Apart from the buffer zones, there are other areas where Indian patrols cannot reach their traditional patrolling points along LAC. These areas are in the Depsang plains in the north and Demchok in the south. Therefore, if there is a future disengagement in Depsang and Demchok, it is likely that the principle of buffer zones will also be followed in these areas.
Looking holistically at the disengagement process, a new line is being created in Eastern Ladakh based on the revised patrolling limits. I am distinguishing this line from LAC because Indian and Chinese soldiers can no longer patrol up to their respective perceptions of LAC in many areas. These areas run from Depsang (PP10 to PP13) to Galwan (PP14) and on to Gogra-Hot Springs (PP15 to 17). In addition, a new line has also been created on both banks of Pangong Tso and at the Charding Nala in Demchok.
There has been some criticism that the negotiations have resulted in unfavourable outcomes for India. The restoration of status quo ante, a primary Indian demand, has not been achieved, and the Chinese have managed to push us back from our territory. Indian troops can no longer patrol some areas they were doing before May 2020, even in locations that were not disputed.
There is certainly some merit in these criticisms. However, there is also a need to pragmatically assess the results of the disengagement process. As mentioned earlier, a clearly defined line for both sides has emerged with the establishment of buffer zones. Over time, an undemarcated LAC had resulted in both sides aggressively attempting to dominate areas up to their claims. As the claims were overlapping in some areas, this led to face-offs and, in some cases, physical clashes, as witnessed at Pangong Tso in August 2017.
With military forces now separated by buffer zones, a reduction in face-offs can be expected. Neither side has given up its LAC claims, but patrolling in disputed areas has been restricted so that soldiers of both sides do not come in close physical proximity to each other.
A few months into the crisis, after India and China had massed forces along LAC, there was never a practical possibility that one side would emerge as a clear winner. It was also clear that diplomacy was the preferred instrument to find a resolution, and outcomes would have to be accepted that were less than ideal for both sides. In the disengagement process, while India has not been able to achieve its aim of restoring status quo ante, China has been forced to withdraw from areas that it had occupied in May 2020, despite publicly stating that it would not “lose an inch of its territory.”
As we look ahead, the two-year standoff holds lessons for both China and India. India has understood that the period of China’s peaceful rise is over and that an unresolved border will always remain a flashpoint. So, India must build up its military capability to deter China from attempting any misadventure at LAC. All other things being equal, deterrence ultimately rests on military power.
China has realised that attempts to coerce India by military actions along LAC carry limited gains and could ultimately prove counterproductive. Even as bilateral relations have plummeted, India has moved closer to the United States and enhanced its role in groupings such as Quad. As China seeks a greater role in global affairs, India’s opposition could hurt its ambitions. At least this realisation should spur the Chinese leadership to seek an early end to the ongoing standoff.
Lieutenant-General Deependra Singh Hooda is the co-founder of the Council for Strategic and Defense Research and a senior fellow, Delhi Policy Group
The views expressed are personal