NEW DELHI: The recent understandings between India and China — by the foreign ministers in Moscow on September 10 and military commanders on Tuesday — are intended to begin the process of a limited disengagement and ensure a continued ‘standstill’ at the Line of Actual Control amid a deep trust deficit between the two sides.
Confirming that meaningful disengagement would depend on the political intent of the Chinese leadership and its willingness to de-escalate on the ground, Indian sources said the two joint statements should be read only to prevent provocative jostling at friction points on the LAC which could flare into hostilities even as India remains prepared for all eventualities.
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A key decision is to stop sending more troops to the frontlines in eastern Ladakh, and keep troops at a ‘safe’ distance from each other and reopen real-time communications, which had frozen. This is intended to ensure a halt to the relentless build-up on the LAC, as a precursor to further steps in the disengagement exercise.
India will continue to insist on status quo ante as in April but the process has now become more complicated after Indian forces seized strategic heights in the southern bank of Pangong Tso and repositioned themselves on the northern bank.
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This not only alters the post-Galwan situation but is also not in conformity with ‘status quo’ that prevailed in April. Until the current face-off, Indian troops patrolled the Finger 4-8 spurs but did not hold the heights they took control of on the south bank in numerous operations on August 29-30. The move gave Indians a strong situational advantage over Chinese positions. India is not in a hurry to vacate the crucial peaks unless there is verifiable action leading to de-induction of PLA troops.
However, sources from Tuesday’s meeting said the discussions were reasonably positive. “The understanding is to keep the situation stable until agreement on disengagement is reached for which further rounds of talks have been proposed,” a source said. In future talks, both sides will get an opportunity to test intentions and ability to follow through on their decisions.
The joint statements need to be followed by actions that reduce the dangerous proximity of Indian and Chinese troops and there is uncertainty whether the statements signed off by China’s foreign ministry have the requisite political sanction at the top level. Indian sources are unclear if the mismatch between Chinese statements and actions are a plan or reflect contrary impulses in China’s political system.
What is evident is that India is taking nothing for granted even if the joint statements reduce, even if not eliminate, the possibility of conflict.