What Pangong means for Asian geopolitics
If disengagement leads to a border pact, the deal is prudent. If Beijing uses it as a tactical pause, then New Delhi may regret concessions
Defence minister Rajnath Singh announced the consensual disengagement of troops by both China and India at the contested Pangong lake in Parliament on February 11. This development, and the gradual pullback of tanks and the dismantling of infrastructure that has taken place by both militaries in a synchronised and verified manner, are cause for modest satisfaction.
However, like the proverbial curate’s egg, the potential for good and bad outcomes in the long-term would have to be assessed in an objective and informed manner.
In a nutshell, after nine rounds of talks between the military commanders, both sides have agreed to a process which will see Chinese troops pulling back east of Finger 8, while Indian troops will remain at Finger 3 near the Dhan Singh Thapa Post. The area between Finger 4 and Finger 8 will be a no-man’s land, with a temporary cessation of patrols and related military activities by both sides, pending further agreement between the two countries.
Spurs along the Pangong lake have been designated as Fingers 1 to 8 from west to east. India has maintained that its claim line of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) extends up to Finger 8. In early 2020, China exploited a tactical gap and moved the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops up to Finger 4 and attempted to alter LAC by a show of force. India’s calibrated response of August 29 at the Kailash range enabled Delhi to acquire a certain tactical advantage. This proved to be a valuable negotiating asset in the protracted talks that culminated in the current disengagement process. Once this round of disengagement is complete, more negotiations will take place to reach the final Indian objective of a return to the status quo on LAC that prevailed in early 2020 prior to the “surprise” Chinese intrusion.
It is significant that China has agreed to pull back from a position of relative tactical advantage and one may conjecture that the Indian occupation of the Kailash heights enabled this compromise.
Many questions have been raised in India about the nature of this disengagement process and whether it is a fair deal. The Congress has termed the “creation of a buffer zone” as a “surrender of Indian interests”. In a written response, the ministry of defence has asserted that “India has not conceded any territory as a result of this agreement”. On the contrary, the statement says, India has “enforced observance and respect for LAC and prevented any unilateral change in the status quo”.
While the disengagement process is a work-in-progress, it merits notice that the cessation of patrolling by both sides, in what is now a no-man’s land, is on the Indian side of LAC — that is west of Finger 8. Whether this will be a temporary arrangement for the Indian troops, pending further resolution of the long-festering territorial tangle between India and China, or whether it becomes the new status quo remains a key question.
Of immediate concern also is the status of the Depsang plateau and the Y junction where China has acquired a tactical advantage that can jeopardise India’s access to Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) and air assets in that region. While noting that the Depsang issue predates the Pangong intrusion, and there are other friction points in eastern Ladakh, India must remain cognisant of the big picture — the unresolved territorial dispute from west to east that spans almost 4,000 km.
Will the current disengagement and the acceptance of a temporary suspension by India of patrolling rights in one area lead to greater malleability in managing LAC — remember China has been reluctant in clarifying LAC despite repeated Indian attempts — and provide a road map for transiting to an agreed border? That would be the most desirable outcome, in which case the current compromise by India would be a prudent political determination. An equitable and consensually settled border remains the elusive Holy Grail for Delhi.
However, if this is only a brief pause for Beijing and President Xi Jinping as China prepares for a major political event — the July centenary celebrations of the Communist Party of China — and the PLA subsequently reverts to its pattern of territorial assertiveness at LAC, then the curate’s egg analogy would come into play. Delhi may rue the accommodations it has made in the current disengagement process. Any intractable issue, such as the impasse on Pangong, needs some give and take to find a way ahead. But Indian military commanders must remain acutely aware of the tactical and strategic stakes involved and proceed in a prudent manner with fallback plans for the less desirable exigency of LAC morphing into another Line of Control. This would be an unfortunate outcome and the price extracted would be substantial.
Whatever the final outcome, it will have an impact on external interlocutors such as the United States (US), Russia and China’s other neighbours. While Delhi’s resolve to resist Beijing’s aggressive bellicosity effectively will be noted by the smaller nations, the Delhi-Beijing bilateral dynamic will also shape — and be shaped by — the US-China-India triangle. President Joe Biden has signalled that the US will hold Beijing’s feet to the fire over the Indo-Pacific and the principles of freedom of navigation and territorial integrity, with a continued focus on reinvigorating Quad.
How China reads this message, and how it wishes to orient itself in relation to contested territoriality will shape many outcomes in Asia and beyond. Pangong is the bellwether.
Commodore (retired) C Uday Bhaskar is director, Society for Policy Studies
The views expressed are personal