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India-China border dispute: as both sides withdraw troops, did New Delhi get a poor deal?

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Indian and Chinese troops and tanks disengaging from the banks of Pangong Tso in Eastern Ladakh.
Photo: Northern Command, Indian Army

 After nine tense months, India and China’s border stand-off  might now be inching towards a resolution. Since last week, both sides have agreed to withdraw thousands of their troops from the Pangong Tso glacial lake high in the Himalayas.

Footage supplied by the Indian government shows Chinese tanks turning away from the lake’s north bank and heading towards their base camps, followed by Indian tanks doing the same.

These images have flooded television screens and social media timelines, with an Indian official on Monday telling local media the disengagement process is set to be complete as soon as the end of this week, although sources had earlier said it could take weeks or months. On Indian news channels, many are hailing this as a victory for the administration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

But within some analyst circles in New Delhi, scepticism and criticism are prevailing rather than collective relief at a conflict averted between two nuclear-armed neighbours.

At the heart of their disquiet is India’s acceptance of what experts say is a “piecemeal” disengagement process, rather than holding the line at a “comprehensive and complete” withdrawal of troops “in all friction areas” as per statements issued on the border dispute between July and October last year by the country’s Ministry of External Affairs.

These areas are at various sites along the 3,488km undemarcated Line of Actual Control that separates the two countries, including the Galwan River Valley, Hot Springs, Gogra, the Depsang Plains and Pangong Tso. Both sides had in July agreed to withdraw troops from the Galwan River Valley, after a deadly clash last June led to the deaths of at least 20 Indian soldiers and an unspecified number of Chinese troops.

Deepak Sinha, a retired brigadier who for much of his three decades in the Indian Army served in Jammu & Kashmir and in India’s northeast along the border with China, said the current agreement that only covered Pangong Tso had “taken away the focus from Hot Springs, Gogra and Depsang”.

“This is the main problem,” Sinha said, adding that the crisis in the Depsang Plains, to the northwest of the lake, was the most worrisome for New Delhi as it was in a strategically located area bordering its old foe Pakistan as well as China.

The Depsang Plains are in the north of India’s Ladakh region, and buffer the Siachen Glacier – a highly militarised area where Indian and Pakistani troops have faced off over their territorial dispute – and Aksai Chin, which is controlled by China. The plains are located at the foot of the Karakoram Pass and lie close to China’s G219 highway, connecting Xinjiang and Tibet.

For India, the region is also critical for its proximity to the recently constructed Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie highway, the only all-weather highway connecting Leh – the capital of Ladakh – to some of the most forward areas along the LAC and an airstrip in the region.

Since last year, Indian media has reported that Chinese soldiers have blocked routine patrolling by Indian troops in areas that New Delhi claims along the plains.

Sinha said India’s capture last August of strategic heights in Chushul, on the southern banks of Pangong Tso, was the answer to resolving the disagreement in the Depsang Plains. This is because the heights – from Rezang La to Reqin La to the Mukhpari heights, collectively known as the Kailash Range – overlook sensitive Chinese military installations and positions in the area.

Control over them gave India an upper hand in border-dispute negotiations and could be used as “leverage” against Beijing, Sinha said.

“My problem is, why has India mixed up the withdrawal from the [strategic heights in Chushul] with the withdrawal from Pangong lake? The Kailash Range covers the entire Ladakh and they are firmly in our territory beyond any dispute, so why withdraw from there? India now has no leverage over the Chinese over what they decide to do in Depsang, Hot Springs and Gogra.”

Opposition leaders, led by the former Indian National Congress president Rahul Gandhi, have also questioned whether India got a shoddy deal. Gandhi last week labelled Modi a “coward who cannot stand up to the Chinese”, while on Sunday former Indian defence minister A.K. Antony called the disengagement a “surrender of rights” by India.

In a statement last Friday, India’s defence ministry called such criticism “misinformed and misleading” and referred to the stand-off at the other areas of the LAC, including the Depsang Plains, as “outstanding issues” that would be dealt with when military commanders from both sides met for another round of talks, 48 hours after they had fully disengaged from Pangong Tso.

D.S. Hooda, a retired lieutenant general who was formerly chief of the Indian Army’s Northern Command and oversaw surgical strikes on Pakistan in 2016, said questions about whether India had been disadvantaged were valid but that a “bargain” was inevitable.

India, he pointed out, had sought for both sides to return to the status quo of April last year, before the initial border flare-up in May. The Chinese could have retorted that India occupied the heights in Chushul after April, he said, adding: “When you are negotiating, you can’t say ‘you go back, we won’t’. ”

According to Hooda, the disengagement process at Pangong Lake was fair and “equal for both sides”. India and China each have territorial claims on the northern bank, and had deployed troops to the finger-like ridges of the mountain range.

Under their agreement, they will stop patrolling the area between Finger 4 and Finger 8, and Indian forces will remain behind Finger 4 while Chinese forces will be in their base close to Finger 8 – an arrangement Hooda said could lead to peace.

“Such a temporary halt in patrolling can ease tensions because you won’t have the constant friction of patrols coming and clashing with each other,” he said.

Retired lieutenant general Rakesh Sharma, who in 2013 commanded the Fire and Fury Corps in Ladakh that has faced both China and Pakistan, acknowledged that the current agreement ran the risk of being violated.

“The only major risk this has is if the Chinese, after disengaging at Pangong Lake, backtrack and say that they don’t want to disengage in the remaining areas,” he said.

Sinha, the retired brigadier, said the consequences could even include Chinese aggression. “What if the Chinese refuse to go back from Depsang and then come and claim the Kailash Range that we are withdrawing from?”

But Sharma said such a scenario should not make New Delhi “doubtful customers”. “If that happens, India will have to do something else to wrest back the advantage – like take control of some other strategic heights. The risk of Chinese duplicity can’t be denied.”

He said the visuals of Chinese and Indian tanks disengaging had a larger lesson for the two countries.

“The tanks, despite having a range of 3km, are stationed within a few hundred metres of each other. This is too dangerous. We could not have gone on like this.”