Ladakh disengagement: a delicate modus vivendi

Ladakh disengagement: a delicate modus vivendi
In a statement released on Monday, July 6, the Indian government claimed that People’s Liberation Army troops had pulled back by about two kilometres on their side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The press release followed a phone call a day earlier between India’s National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, and Wang Yi, China’s State Councillor and Minister of Foreign Affairs.

According to a Times of India story on July 8, “The disengagement process actually started on July 2. It was halted for the day on July 3, when [Indian] PM Narendra Modi visited Nimu in Ladakh.... In fact, by the time [Ajit] Doval and Wang [Yi] got talking on July 5, the disengagement was already underway.”

It is difficult to prove the veracity of this claim because there was no official word on disengagement by China post-July 2.

The sequence of events indicates that while the broad contours of disengagement and deescalation were worked out on June 30 when the top commanders on both sides met for a third round of talks, the terms of disengagement were not signed because a sign off was above the remit of the military sherpas. That happened with the Doval-Wang phone call.

More steps are in the pipeline to verify disengagement. Reports speak of a meeting this week of the Working Mechanism for Coordination and Consultation, another round of meeting between top military commanders and a Doval-Wang chinwag within a fortnight.

But this isn’t the substance of the ongoing tensions. The real issue which, among other problems, should worry Indian civil and military leadership is the glaring fact that China, without firing a single shot or going to war, as in 1962, has reached its claim line of 1959 in the Ladakh sector. For India that not only means loss of territory, but withdrawing two kilometres east from ground that it claimed as its own. In the Galwan sector that means east of the Shyok River. (See map.)

Even if PLA were to dismantle some or all of its forward positions in Galwan, the 4-km buffer means India cannot patrol to points it earlier covered. The buffer zone is now out of bounds for Indian troops. The PLA, on the other hand, retains its operational advantage and can deploy to forward positions whenever the need for that arises. In other words, the PLA can exploit its advantage even after the claimed 2-km withdrawal.

Indian defence experts have noted that India believed, on the basis of the 1993 Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the Line of Actual Control, that its pre-May positions fell within its territory. India thus appears to have lost what it guarded and patrolled for 27 years.

There are two problems with this reasoning, though. One, the line was never agreed on the ground. Two, clause 6 the 1993 Agreement clearly states that “The two sides agree that references to the line of actual control in this Agreement do not prejudice their respective positions on the boundary question.” For China that position refers to its 1959 Line. In other words, PLA has been operating in its territory all along.

This also comes through in the read-out of the phone call released by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Of the four points listed, the fourth talks about “complete disengagement of the front-line troops as soon as possible,” without giving any details of the terms of such disengagement. Even more ominously for India, the read-out says that Wang Yi noted that “The right and wrong of what recently happened at the Galwan Valley in the western sector of the China-India boundary is very clear. China will continue [to] firmly safeguard our territorial sovereignty as well as peace and tranquility in the border areas.” (emphasis added)

This statement puts the entire blame on India for the violent clash that killed at least 20 Indian troops, including the commanding officer of the battalion. Moreover, the statement uses terms such as “positive agreement” and “positive common understandings”. It should be clear that these terms are sufficiently vague for any side to interpret them any which way. For Beijing they mean only one thing: accept the fait accompli.

But what is the 1959 Line? That’s where one gets into history which also served its purpose in the run-up to the 1962 Sino-Indian War.

While China does not accept the McMahon Line between Tibet (now China-controlled Tibet Autonomous Region) and India’s Northeastern Region, the LAC in the eastern sector is still better marked than in the western sector since the eastern sector follows the crest of Himalayan mountains. The McMahon Line was drawn at the 1914 Simla Convention by Sir Henry McMahon, foreign secretary of British India, and signed between the British Empire and Tibet’s representatives.

China refused to send a representative to the Simla Convention and never accepted or ratified the Line. Its concept of the boundary, as mentioned in the correspondence between Zhou En Lai and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was further south of where McMahon had drawn the line. On the western side, while Nehru considered the (forward- and eastern-leaning) Ardagh-Johnson Line of 1865 as the boundary separating Ladakh from Tibet, China’s claim line was closer to but west of the Macartney–MacDonald Line of 1899. This was the line British Indian government proposed to China but the latter did not respond to the proposal. (See map)

Interestingly, the term “Line of Actual Control” was used by Zhou En Lai in his letter dated 7 November 1959: According to Zhou, the LAC consisted of “the so-called MacMahon Line  in the east and the line up to which each side exercises actual control in the west.”

During the Sino-Indian War, Nehru’s view was that “There is no sense or meaning in the Chinese offer to withdraw twenty kilometres from what they call ‘line of actual control’. What is this ‘line of control’?”

To this, Zhou responded by writing that the LAC was “basically still the line of actual control as existed between the Chinese and Indian sides on 7 November 1959. To put it concretely, in the eastern sector it coincides in the main with the so-called McMahon Line, and in the western and middle sectors it coincides in the main with the traditional customary line which has consistently been pointed out by China.”

It should be evident that Beijing (then-Peking) was clear that the boundary was as per what China considered it to be. As Neville Maxwell pointed out in his definitive book, India’s China War, this was the upshot of Nehru’s earlier approach to avoid negotiating the boundary question with China and to consider the “Lines” bequeathed to independent India as sacrosanct. To put it differently, by rejecting the history of how and why these “Lines” were created, spurning the imperative of putting India’s post-colonial relations on a different footing and by embarking on a forward policy against China, he invited the 1962 War.

Today’s events have, therefore, to be seen in that context.

The question now is: what next?

One, the ‘muscular’ government of Narendra Modi seems to have accepted China’s 1959 Line. This is more sensible than what Nehru had done. Neither is this without reason. As Christopher Clary and Vipin Narang point out in an article for War on the Rocks, India’s options range from bad to worse to ugly.

Second, this has not just happened in Galwan but across the entire sector from Depsang in the north to Demchok in the south, an over 200-km stretch. That means a coordinated, theatre-wide move.

Third, the decision to fall back (as per the agreement reported by Delhi) and create a 4-km buffer zone is entirely in the territory claimed by India. Indian army (IA) will have to dismantle any semi- or permanent structures in the buffer zone. [NB: it’s important to flag the point that India is in illegal occupation of Jammu and Kashmir of which Ladakh is a part. This is as per UN Security Council resolutions.]

Fourth, the IA will now be under pressure, including in the eastern sector. India is already bringing in more troops. These forward deployments will require infrastructure, logistics, permanent bases, in other words an entire habitat. This has a cost; it also brings its own pressures. Most of these deployments, leaving aside the rhetoric in Delhi, will be for performing sentinel and policing duties. That would require constant vigil by IA to ensure that PLA does not ingress either south in the eastern sector or west in the western sector. Corollary: even with force rationalisation, the IA numbers will remain high on a permanent basis.

Fifth, the PLA already enjoys a strategic eco-system for its deployments in the Tibet Autonomous Region. It retains its superior strategic orientation and can use time and space to its advantage.

Sixth, as Indian army sources told a reporter, the conflict could happen “over and over again, perhaps with greater violence, because we are treating the symptoms, not the disease.”

The situation is far from “resolved” and the modus vivendi could break down. It will be interesting to watch it unfold.

The writer is a former News Editor of The Friday Times. He reluctantly tweets @ejazhaider

The writer has an abiding interest in foreign and security policies and life’s ironies.