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Was India’s pull-out from lake on disputed China border a mistake?

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Indian and Chinese troops and tanks disengaging from the banks of Pangong lake area in Eastern Ladakh. Photo: Handout

Two months after New Delhi and Beijing completed the disengagement of troops from the hotly-contested Pangong Tso lake on their disputed border, there is a growing belief in India that its troops withdrew too early and what was meant to set the stage for a fuller pull-out by both sides at other friction points is unlikely to happen any time soon.

The Indian government has made no official comment, but local media reports have quoted military and government sources as saying that Chinese forces were “reluctant” to restore the status quo that existed in at least two other areas before the stand-off that began last May, and that Beijing had indicated New Delhi “should be happy” with what has been achieved so far.

Such statements were made after senior military commanders from both countries met on April 9 to discuss the disengagement process at Hot Springs and Gogra – located along their undemarcated border known as the Line of Actual Control between India’s Ladakh region and the Chinese-administered Aksai Chin.

As part of the early-February agreement for both sides to withdraw troops, tanks and artillery from the glacial lake, Indian forces had given up its positions on the strategically-located Kailash range in the region. 

“It appears India was in a hurry to declare ‘victory’ by making China ‘withdraw’ from the finger areas [of Pangong Tso],” said BR Deepak, a professor of Chinese and China Studies at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.

According to Deepak, Beijing’s goal “was to vacate India from the Kailash range” to wrest back the tactical advantage that New Delhi had, but it did so by “changing the status quo” on the northern banks of the Pangong Tso.

The northern banks have finger-like spurs of the heights overlooking the lake which have been numbered from one to eight. India claims territories eastward from Finger 1 up to Finger 8, while Beijing claims territory westwards up to Finger 4.

In the current agreement, both sides have vacated the area between Finger 4 and Finger 8 and have decided that neither side would patrol that area.

The agreement had led to hopes for a similar resolution to the troop stand-off at Hot Springs and Gogra. But, with no resolution in sight two months later, Deepak said this had escalated the crisis. “Hot Springs and Gogra Heights where there was no friction before have become new friction points as China has refused to withdraw from these positions,” he said.

Deepak Sinha, a retired Indian Army brigadier, said he believed India’s early withdrawal could have lasting consequences.

“The Chinese are not going anywhere, it is obvious,” he said. “We will never be able to go back to the idea that the border dispute can be settled later, while the two countries cooperate on other issues.”

According to a release by the Indian embassy in Beijing on Tuesday, comments made by India’s ambassador to China Vikram Misri several days after the April 9 meeting suggested New Delhi was unwilling to look past the current stalemate.

“We have also seen a tendency in some quarters to sweep this situation under the carpet and characterise it as just a minor issue and a matter of perspective,” Misri told a meeting of Chinese in Guangzhou, according to the embassy.

Misri added that this was “inadvisable” and would take the two countries “further away from a sustained solution”.

Beijing, however, indicated it wanted New Delhi to keep the border stand-off at “an appropriate position”.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin on Wednesday said he hoped India would “meet China halfway” and “focus on the bigger picture of long-term development of bilateral relations”.

China on Friday offered to help India battle an alarming surge in coronavirus cases that has seen its hospital system buckle from a lack of medical supplies, including oxygen.

India is also facing a shortage of raw materials used to make vaccines due to export curbs by the United States and Europe.

New Delhi has not yet responded to Beijing’s offer, even as it has put out an international appeal for help, with oxygen tanks sent to India from Singapore on Saturday.

Strategic significance

One reason behind the prolonged stand-off at Hot Springs and Gogra could be the strategic significance these spots carry for both the countries, analysts said.

These friction points lie close to the Kongka Pass, a high-altitude mountain pass that China claims is the boundary between the two countries. India claims the boundary to be further east of this pass.

“This pass lies close to strategically-crucial deposits of zinc in Chinese territory and hence, occupying Hot Springs and Gogra might be one way of pre-emptively blocking off India’s access to those areas,” said retired Lieutenant General Rakesh Sharma, who in 2013 served in the region as the commander of the Fire and Fury Corps. 

Sharma was referring to the Huoshaoyun deposit, said to be the site of one of Asia’s largest zinc-lead deposits, according to Metal Bulletin, a portal that tracks global metal and mining-related information.

The pass is also crucial due to its proximity to the sensitive Chinese provinces of Xinjiang and Tibet, both which have traditionally posed security concerns for Beijing.

According to Sharma, making it tougher for New Delhi is its poor access to its forward-locations in Hot Springs and Gogra.

“Both these posts are accessible to India only through the Marsimik La pass, which is shut for half the year due to the harsh winter conditions. Hence, this is not a strong post for India,” said Sharma.

Based on his knowledge of the area and military operations in the region, Sharma said New Delhi needed a “pragmatic approach” to deal with the Chinese refusal to disengage from these friction points.

“The truth is, if China has denied have denied India patrolling rights here, India has also denied the China the patrolling rights at many points as per Beijing’s 1959 LAC claim line,” he said, pointing to a border alignment that was first spelt out by late Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in a letter to then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1959, which New Delhi continues to reject.

“Which is why, we need pragmatism and not strategies like delinking,” Sharma said.

Sharma suggested that the two sides could create a “buffer-zone” where both sides patrol in a regulated manner and the claims of both sides “remain intact”.

“If we want to do business, we will have to come to a sector-wise compromise,” he said.

Deepak, the New Delhi academic, said India’s options were limited and that the stalemate was likely to persist, with ongoing bilateral ties likely to be shaped by India’s post-coronavirus recovery.

“It will depend on how quickly India regains its economic growth trajectory by making its social and economic drivers strong,” he said. “Until then, China will not be sensitive to India’s (concerns).”