Twice in the last few months has Indian diplomacy retrieved what seemed like lost causes, particularly to an outraged Indian media. The first was the return of Italian marines to stand trial in India but it is the second, which is of greater importance. On Sunday, the Chinese troops withdrew from the tented outpost they had created on April 15 in Depchang plains in Eastern Ladakh, around 19 kilometres inside Indian versions of the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
Simultaneously, Indian ITBP personnel, deployed on the other side of Raki Nala after the incursion, also withdrew to their original position.
India’s foreign ministry says that the status quo ante along the LAC as it existed prior to April 15 has been restored, after flag meetings were held to work out the modalities and to confirm the arrangements. Reports attributed to unnamed senior Indian government officials claim that there has been no other deal with China.
India is supposed to have used “hysteria’’ generated at home to press the Chinese for a solution. Chinese foreign ministry hasn’t offered specifics on the settlement, but its spokesperson Hua Chunying said, “As far as I know consultations have been fruitful.”
The reasons for the incursion are still not known but this withdrawal suggests that the move was not part of a scheme hatched at the highest levels of the Chinese Communist Party. As scholars like Ashley Tellis and Srinath Raghvan had suggested, it seems to be a move made by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) or even the local units of the PLA on their own. India doesn’t figure high enough in Beijing’s strategic priorities to merit a coordinated military-civilian manoeuvre by China.
The lack of anti-India rhetoric among Chinese newspapers, individual bloggers, security think-tanks and officially blessed websites during the incursion also give credence to this view. The timing of the incident was also odd.
While China adopted a more assertive attitude towards Japan and Southeast Asia, it needed to pivot to Russia and India. Driving India into America’s arms by being assertive made little sense for China.
In all likelihood, the PLA chose to establish a physical presence in Depchang concerned with the infrastructure India is building in Ladakh to catch up with robust Chinese infrastructure across the border. The latter gives China a far greater advantage in troop mobilisation should a confict break out. In the flag meetings, China had demanded dismantling of bunkers being constructed by India in Phuktsay and Chumar areas before it considers withdrawal. Indian government sources say that New Delhi has assured Beijing that the Chinese concerns on Indian infrastructure build up in the region, both civil and military, can be discussed separately.
In future discussion, the Chinese are likely to again push through their proposal for a defence cooperation agreement, which was mooted during Chinese Defence Minister’s visit to India in March 2013. China wants India to share details of its patrolling programmes and schedules on the border. The agreement also proposes to freeze the military deployment of both countries at the border. India is not keen to go through with the proposal as it has plans for a major military expansion effort on the Chinese border.
That India doesn’t officially know the Chinese version of the LAC lies at the heart of the problem. Despite repeated requests from New Delhi since December 1981, when the first round of boundary talks took place, China has refused to spell out its perception of the LAC. This has allowed China to increase its territorial claims while frequently changing its patrolling patterns. India has to emphasise Article 10 of the 1996 agreement on ‘CBMs in the Military Field along the LAC’, where “the two sides agree(d) to speed up the process of clarification and confirmation of the Line of Actual Control.”
To prevent another Depchang like crisis, India must ensure both countries exchange maps duly marked with their respective versions of the LAC.
Meanwhile, India must build on its successful diplomatic effort by accelerating its plans for infrastructure development and military expansion in areas bordering China. As civilised neighbours, India and China have to remain engaged strategically. With a new Chinese political leadership in place, India’s post-Depchang actions will set course for bilateral relations for the next decade. By making India the first port of call of his maiden foreign tour later this month, the new Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has sent the right message.
But while engaging strategically, India can’t allow itself to be caught off-balance tactically like Depchang again.
— Author is the editor of Pragati