Flashpoints | Security | South Asia

Fresh Round of India-China Military Commanders’ Talks Hint at a New Status Quo on their Border

A joint statement after the meeting does not mention restoration of status quo in eastern Ladakh – an omission consistent with hardening Chinese position.

Abhijnan Rej
Fresh Round of India-China Military Commanders’ Talks Hint at a New Status Quo on their Border

Pangong Lake

Credit: Flickr/Omkar A Kamale

On September 22, a full day after the 6th round of India-China military commanders’ talks, the two countries released a joint statement about it. The Chinese and Indian Foreign Ministers, Wang Yi and S. Jaishankar, had met in Moscow on September 10 to discuss the standoff in Ladakh. The latest round of military talks (which also saw the participation of an official from India’s foreign ministry) was the first following their meeting; many had expected the outcome of this round to reflect the agreements reached by Wang and Jaishankar – or the lack thereof.

And reflected it the talks did. Just like the joint statement after the Wang-Jaishankar meeting, the September 22 statement was anodyne, suggesting that India-China talks are now deadlocked. But as some analysts on social media have already flagged, the absence of crucial commitments in the latest joint statement suggests that India may be ready to accept the new status quo when it comes to a Line of Actual Control (LAC) shifted to China’s benefit in eastern Ladakh.

Analyzing the joint statement after the Wang-Jaishankar meeting in these pages the day after, I had noted that it did not indicate “India is anywhere near to achieving the outcome it seeks – restoration of status quo ante as it existed in April this year in eastern Ladakh. In fact, the joint statement – most likely to have been heavily negotiated – does not reflect key Indian positions.” Sadly, from India’s perspective, this was also the case with the statement after the military commanders’ meeting. Not only does it also not mention restoration of status quo ante; it also talks of agreeing to “stop sending more troops to the frontline,” which – along with an agreement to “refrain from unilaterally changing the situation on the ground” – suggests India’s acceptance of the changed reality on the ground.

In fact, as government sources have told journalist Ajai Shukla, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) “hardened” its position in the military commanders’ meeting, demanding that India withdraw from the five or six heights south of the Pangong Lake that it seized during an offensive operation involving India’s secretive Special Frontier Force at the end of last month; only then would the PLA consider withdrawing from areas that it occupies across what India perceives to be the LAC. India’s control of these heights allows it to surveil Chinese positions in the area and help its army prevent further PLA ingress into the Indian-controlled Chushul Bowl, Shukla noted.

As Christopher Clary, a close observer of the current standoff, noted, there is also an interesting civil-military angle to India’s response to the ongoing standoff. While foreign minister Jaishankar has adopted a relatively placatory line towards it, emphasizing the determining importance of diplomacy, Defense Minister Rajnath Singh’s position has been much firmer – a perhaps natural difference, owing to their respective portfolios. In fact, the Print reported on Monday that India sent a foreign ministry representative to the military commanders’ meeting on September 22 so that “the Chinese do not get an opportunity to say that Indian diplomats and Army officials speak in different voices,” as one diplomatic source told the outlet.

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Diplomatic and military engagements being where they are, it is likely that the standoff will continue through the winter, with significant costs to both China and India, assuming that a kinetic confrontation does not break out before that, either by accident or design. Dates for a 7th round of military commanders’ talks have not yet been announced.