Indian and Chinese military forces have been engaged in a military standoff in Ladakh for more than six months now. Several rounds of military and diplomatic talks had yielded no progress. But there was cautious optimism in New Delhi after the eighth round of corps commander-level talks between India and China, held on November 6. There are increasing hints that some agreement may be reached. According to one report in the Indian media, the two sides reportedly “agreed to restoring status quo ante” on the Line of Actual Control (LAC). According to sources quoted in the report, “all that remains is for both sides to formalize the sequencing of steps required to achieve the objective.”
But this is the most optimistic of the reports, though earlier reports about the November 6 meeting also claimed that progress had been made. On the same day that these more optimistic reports appeared, Indian Army Chief General M.M. Naravane, speaking at a public event in Delhi, said, “We are hopeful of reaching an agreement which is mutually acceptable and is really beneficial in keeping with the overarching policy guidelines.” There remains understandable caution, as he also added that the border troops are fully equipped with appropriate clothing and weapons and that the forces face “no shortages whatsoever.”
In earlier reports on the November 6 meeting, an official said that India “want[s] complete de-escalation. Reduction of troops from some areas and de-induction of weapons is not a viable option and is not what we have proposed.” Chief of Defense Staff General Bipin Rawat also maintained that the any change in the status quo “is not acceptable to India” and that one cannot rule out the “situation getting out of hand and spiralling into a larger conflict.”
India’s official statement was also along the same lines and did not mention “restoring status quo ante.” The statement simply said that “the two sides had a candid, in-depth and constructive exchange of views on disengagement along the Line of Actual Control in the Western Sector.” The statement further added that the two sides would “earnestly implement the important consensus reached by the leaders of the two countries, ensure their frontline troops to exercise restraint and avoid misunderstanding and miscalculation.”
Other Indian media reports also suggested some progress, though not that the two sides had agreed to restore the status quo ante. According to one of these reports, an Indian Army officer said that “China’s latest proposal is better than their previous proposals.”
There is also disagreement in the reports about the sequencing of steps for a withdrawal of forces. Some media reports said that India and China have agreed to a three-point disengagement agenda which included pulling back of tanks and anti-personnel carriers within a day as the first step. A second step would involve the withdrawal of 30 percent of troops on both sides every day for three days around the northern bank on the Pangong Tso. This reportedly would push the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) east of Finger 8. The third step would include withdrawal of frontline troops on both sides in the southern bank of Pangong Tso, as well as areas around Chushul and Rezang La The three-step disengagement process is to be enforced through a joint verification mechanism, which includes both delegation meetings as well as the use of drones.
Another report, however, suggested that China would pull back from the Pangong Tso area first. China “has apparently agreed to go back to Finger 8 and remove all temporary structures and deployments the PLA had put up between Finger 4 and Finger 8 since May,” according to this report. The area between Finger 4 and 8 could be kept as a “no-patrolling” area, with neither side permitted to patrol. But there is no agreement to this effect, yet. The second step would be disengagement of heavy armor and artillery. Currently, the deployment of tanks in close proximity, T-72 Indias on the Indian side and Type-99s on the Chinese side, in the Chushul sector, is seen by both sides as risky. Other reports have said that these are all still proposals, which will be taken up in the next round of talks. It should be noted too that only one report has talked about both sides agreeing to restoring the status quo ante.
Even if the current tensions were to be resolved in the near term, India’s security perceptions about China are forcing India to undertake some force restructuring to maintain constant vigilance along the LAC, especially in the western sector. In addition to the 3 Infantry Division that is responsible for the LAC in eastern Ladakh, the Northern Command has decided to deploy another division of around 10,000 troops in Ladakh on a longer-term basis.
Whether these optimistic reports will be borne out remains to be seen. On both sides, there are likely to be worries about the risks involved in withdrawing from positions that they now hold, which carries with it the risk that the other side may renege and attempt to occupy these positions. Trusting each other may still be the biggest hurdle.