The 19th round of the India-China Corps Commander-level talks that took place on the Indian side of the Chushul-Moldo meeting point on August 13-14 ended without a breakthrough on the stalemate along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh. No progress was made at the recent meeting on the question of Chinese troops disengaging from the strategic Depsang Plains and Demchok.
According to an Indian government official, however, the recent meeting had “positive outcome.” One is that for the first time, the just-concluded 19th round extended over two days. Moreover, the meeting resulted in the Indian and Chinese foreign ministries issuing a joint statement a day after the conclusion of the meeting. The talks also “went smoothly,” the official told The Diplomat.
According to the joint press release, the two sides “had a positive, constructive and in-depth discussion on the resolution of the remaining issues along the LAC [Line of Actual Control] in the Western Sector” of their disputed border. Views were exchanged in an “open and forward-looking manner” and “in line with the guidance provided by the leadership.”
The statement said that the two sides “agreed to resolve the remaining issues in an expeditious manner and maintain the momentum of dialogue and negotiations through military and diplomatic channels” and that while issues were being resolved, they “agreed to maintain the peace and tranquility on the ground in the border areas.”
While there is plenty of feel-good rhetoric in the statement, much of it has been heard before.
Not all rounds of talks have produced a joint statement. The 18th round, for example, which was held in April saw the two sides issue separate readouts. There have even been meetings, such as the 13th round that was held in October 2021, which ended in acrimony and separate statements where China slammed India for putting forward “unreasonable and unrealistic demands, which added difficulties to the negotiations,” while the Indian side accused Beijing of failing to “provide any forward-looking proposals.”
Compared to these meetings, the latest one appears more productive primarily because there was a joint statement at the end of the talks.
According to the Indian official, the joint statement has “brightened the prospects” of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi meeting on the sidelines of the BRICS summit, which will take place in Johannesburg from August 22 to 24. Moreover, India is hosting the G-20 summit at New Delhi on September 9 and 10. The Modi government is hoping that Xi will participate in person in that event.
Had the 19th round not resulted in a joint statement it would have “ruled out” a Modi-Xi handshake at Johannesburg and New Delhi, the Indian official said.
Sino-Indian relations have been strained since May 2020 when China began pushing its troops, tanks and weaponry into the Indian side of the LAC at several points. In June of that year, hand-to-hand fighting erupted at the Galwan Valley resulting in loss of lives on both sides, the first time in 45 years that fatalities were reported along the LAC.
In the three-plus years since that bloody confrontation in the Himalayas, India and China have stepped up troop deployment, beefed up their defensive and offensive military hardware along the LAC and improved connectivity to their disputed border. Parallelly, they have engaged in talks between political leaders, diplomats and military commanders to resolve the border crisis.
The joint statement from the 19th round suggests that the talks have resulted in a resolution of at least some issues. The two sides “agreed to resolve the remaining issues in an expeditious manner,” (emphasis mine) as if some issues along the LAC have been resolved and a few more remain.
However, Sushant Singh, a senior fellow at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research pointed out in a recent tweet that “No issue has been resolved on the LAC.”
So far talks have led to troop disengagement from and the creation of buffer zones at Galwan Valley, the north and south banks of Pangong Tso and the Gogra-Hot Springs area. No disengagement has happened at Depsang and Demchok.
Buffer zones serve to reduce the chances of abrasive face-offs between soldiers of the two sides by disallowing deployment of their troops in close proximity at a time of heightened tension along the LAC.
But at best, the “creation of buffer zones at five places is a temporary expediency to reduce tensions, not a resolution of those issues,” Singh said. Consequently, the phrase “resolution of remaining issues” in the joint statement is “misleading.”
As Ashok Kantha, a former Indian ambassador to China, tweeted, “Any resolution must involve restoration of India’s pre-May 2020 patrolling rights at all ‘friction points’ and not merely creation of ‘buffer zones’.”
This is yet to happen. China is yet to agree to the restoration of the pre-May 2020 status quo at even a single ‘friction point’ along the LAC in Ladakh.
So why did India agree to a joint statement that claims resolution of at least some issues along the LAC?
Since the start of the crisis, the Modi government has been opaque on the situation on the ground along the LAC or what is transpiring at the talks. Indeed, soon after the Galwan face-off Prime Minister Modi said in a speech that was telecast no one has intruded into Indian territory nor has any Indian post been captured. His government has refused to allow discussion of the situation in Ladakh in Parliament or to take opposition leaders into confidence on the matter. It has been parsimonious on the truth with regard to the nature of the buffer zones, which have resulted in India losing control over more territory.
And now the Modi government has agreed to a joint statement that indirectly claims “resolution” of some issues along the LAC. By going along with the Chinese position that issues have been “resolved” at these friction points, it appears that New Delhi is acquiescing quietly yet again to Beijing’s claims on the disputed border.
The Modi government is anxious to ensure a successful G-20 summit. It is keen to ensure that all goes smoothly at Johannesburg, paving the way for Xi’s participation in the New Delhi event, perhaps even a handshake or meeting with Modi. The joint statement must be seen in this context.
With India due to vote in general elections next year, Bharatiya Janata Party is keen on scoring some global summit successes that project Modi as a global leader. The Modi government will be hoping that by going along with Chinese positions it can ensure that the LAC remains quiet, at least until elections are done. With the joint statement clearing the way for the BRICS summit, Indian public attention has moved away from the Himalayan frontier for now.