Indo-China border talks: Incremental gain, long way for resolution

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India and China have undertaken a series of military level talks over the past two weeks in an effort to resolve the border crisis in Eastern Ladakh where PLA troops have intruded at four locations and have built up forces in depth. A look at the details.

The ISSUE: In early May, Chinese troops started building up in strength along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Eastern Ladakh. The build up was carried out at lightning pace as the PLA redirected troops taking part in an exercise on the Tibetan plateau to positions close to the border. This included heavy vehicles, tanks, artillery and upwards of 6000 soldiers.

More worrying, at four locations – Patrol Points 14 (in Galwan), 15, 17 (Gogra) and Finger 4 (Pangong Tso) – PLA intruded into Indian territory. At Galwan they objected to the construction of an Indian bridge and road and at Pangong, PLA moved in troops to stop Indian patrols beyond Finger 4, effectively cutting off an area over 50 sq km.

At least two violent clashes also took place at Galwan and Pangong – both involving sticks and stones – in which scores of soldiers were injured.

The Indian side responded by rushing thousands of troops from other locations to Eastern Ladakh and by moving in artillery and tanks to mirror the Chinese deployments.

The TALKS: After the violence that took place on May 5 and 6, the two sides set up camps close to each other, triggering off a standoff that has lasted over five weeks now. Though there has been no violence since then, discussions were held at the top level between India and China to defuse the situation.

LT GEN level: The highest level talks in the military were on June 6, when 14 Corps Commander LT Gen Harinder Singh met his counterpart Maj Gen Liu Lin at the Chushul-Moldo border. Post the talks, limited disengagement has taken place in the Galwan valley and near Gogra though PLA troops still remain deployed in strength. The talks however ensured that the situation does not further deteriorate as thousands of troops from each side have been deployed forward.

Maj Gen level: Prior to the LT Gen level talks, at least three talks were carried out by the Indian divisional commander Maj Gen Abhijit Bapat and his Chinese counterpart. These talks laid the ground for the Lt Gen level engagements.

Since June 6, two additional talks at the Maj Gen level have been carried out at the contentious Patrol Point 14 at Galwan. There has not been any official details on the results of these talks but Army Chief Gen MM Naravane has said that disengagement has taken place, indicating that the matter could get resolved through dialogue.

Another round of Lt Gen level talks is expected in the coming days.

The PANGONG Crisis: Talks are being carried out to resolve the Galawn valley intrusions at multiple levels, raising hopes that the PLA will withdraw troops and end the standoff. It is crucial for PLA to withdraw as their continued presence is being seen as a threat to the newly built Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie road that is critical to supply troops posted near the Karakoram pass.

However, Pangong lake seem like a much bigger task, as the PLA has taken up over 50 sq km of land that was earlier being patrolled by both sides between Finger 8 and 4. The Chinese have build permanent defences between Finger 3 and 4, denying Indian troops access to the disputed area.

Talks on PLA vacating the Finger 4 area, which Indian considers is part of its territory, have not resulted in progress. The Chinese side has built defences both at the base of Finger 4 (along the lake) and at the top which have cut off the entire area beyond from any patrolling.

China considers the LAC to extend to Finger 4 and has made it a hard point that it is just building up defences on its own territory. This is unacceptable to India that perceives that the LAC is up to Finger 8.

This crisis would take a long time to get resolved, as China seems to have dug its heels in as far as the lake is concerned.

India’s Options: India has made it clear that it wants to resolve the standoff through talks and the diplomatic and military level. There is hope that after local commanders reach and understanding, PLA would restore status quo ante of April this year by withdrawing troops from Galwan and the Finger area. However, if talks do not succeed, there are limited options to put pressure on China to withdraw troops.

A:
Moving troops into other parts of the LAC: As the LAC is not properly defined in a large part of Eastern Ladakh, there is an option to move troops ahead in other areas beyond the intrusion points where PLA troops are not deployed. This would not put them in direct confrontation with Chinese soldiers but would press in the point that the LAC is not defined and India can carry out similar moves by militarising areas that were only patrolled in the past by both sides. India has a unique advantage of trained soldiers to do so – troops posted in the Siachen glacier man posts at impossible heights of over 20,000 feet.

B:
Outflanking PLA: A more direct approach would be to move in troops into the Finger area that is claimed by India. While the PLA has forcefully occupied Finger 4 and build defences there to prevent soldiers from crossing over, an option exists for `bouncing in’ soldiers via boats or air beyond Finger 4 to lay claim on the territory that has traditionally been patrolled by India. This would however put soldiers on both sides in a direct confrontation – a situation that has been avoided in the past as part of the border confidence building measures.

IN DEPTH CONCERN: The sudden and unprovoked buildup by Chinese troops across the LAC deep within Tibet has been a larger concern. These troops, brought in from other locations, have set up camp 20-50 km from the border in an aggressive posturing by China. These camps included artillery guns in firing positions and light tanks and armoured personnel carriers that are designed to quickly transport troops across rough terrain.

These Chinese deployments have been mirrored by India that has moved in crack troops experienced in mountain warfare along the LAC. The Indian deployments are considered more than a match for the PLA build up but the presence of thousands of troops in close proximity considerably raises the chance of escalation, especially if an unplanned local incident takes place.

India has been clear that for de-escalation to take place, the Chinese buildup has to be reversed and its troops brought in from deep Tibet have to return. This scaling down will be reciprocated by the Indian side that brought in heavy equipment and troops as well.

However, as the Doklam crisis showed, such build ups take a long time to be resolved. The Doklam build up lasted over two months and in Eastern Ladakh too, the winters and the harsh weather they bring that makes long deployments hard to keep up are sometime away.





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