14 rounds of India China Corps Commanders talks have now been held for working out modalities of disengagement and de-escalation from the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Eastern Ladakh or the Western Sector of the India China boundary.
There is a sense of déjà vu after talks either succeed in disengagement or fail to reach an agreement by commentators who have declared an inclination either way.
The mood was thus despondent after 14th round India-China Corps Commander Level Meeting was held at Chushul-Moldo border meeting point on the Chinese side on 12th January 2022.
There were expectations that modalities of disengagement from Hot Springs will be agreed upon during the 14th Round after a pull back was achieved from Gogra Post after the talks in August. Some tactical factors may have prevented an agreement. More deliberations may achieve a breakthrough in further rounds of engagement.
What was important is commitment by India and China as per the Joint Statement issued post the 14th Round to "follow the guidance provided by the State Leaders and work for the resolution of the remaining issues at the earliest”.
“The two sides also agreed to consolidate on the previous outcomes and take effective efforts to maintain the security and stability on the ground in the Western Sector including during winter,” said the press release.
The winter posture is no doubt very critical for survival of troops in freezing cold with wind chill factor in the high altitude.
Some unconfirmed reports on social media have indicated People’s Liberation Army (PLA) having suffered some casualties due to the harsh winter possibly in an avalanche. There have been no reports of winter casualties on the Indian side so far.
Importantly, “two sides agreed to stay in close contact and maintain dialogue via military and diplomatic channels and work out a mutually acceptable resolution of the remaining issues at the earliest”.
While the next round of the Commanders’ talks is planned to be held earliest unless there is a reasonable understanding of tactical implications of the proposal for pull back from Hot Springs by both sides and arriving at a via media these may not be held. This should not result in dismissing the Senior Commanders talks as infructous.
Right framework Senior commanders talks is essential to understand importance of this mechanism of negotiations and conflict management and avoid inflated expectations. Some facets are highlighted herein:-
Firstly senior commanders talks are limited only to disengagement and de-escalation from possible points of conflict to avoid a Galwan like situation developing with the two sides indulging in hand to hand fighting. These are both negotiating as well as confidence building instruments and thus need to be sustained despite the occasional hiccups. Face to face interactions by the top commanders of the Indian Army and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is welcome to avoid hostility.
Secondly mechanism of Corps commanders talks is not about resolution of the boundary issue for which the Prime Minister’s Special Representatives have been designated though not talks have been held for some time now.
The National Security Adviser, Mr Ajit Doval on the Indian side and the State Counsellor and Foreign Minister Mr Wang Yi from China are representatives who will resolve the issue based on agreed principles.
In the final analysis this will remain a political issue decided at the highest level.
Thirdly, there is no change in the aims and objectives that have been determined by India and China in terms of the LAC. It is reported that China is seeking to establish claims based on the 1959 claim line while India on the status quo existing prior to May 2020. The Corps Commanders are possibly not at the level where an agreement towards the same could be reached.
Fourthly through sustained negotiations disengagement and de-escalation has been achieved from a number of points on the LAC over a period from Galwan, Pangong Tso North and South and Gogra Post. India had desired that disengagement takes place across the board and negotiations should be held for the same from all points simultaneously, China has opted for a step by step approach which had to be accepted by New Delhi. Taking this forwards assumes importance.
Fifthly despite the highly sensitive issue of sovereignty and territory India and China are unlikely and unwilling to open an armed confrontation over disengagement on the LAC, any clash if it happens may be an over reaction at the local level. An armed confrontation if at all may take place once one or the either side is in a position to change the status quo by force, which neither is at present. Such a situation may be more likely over Arunachal Pradesh
Sixthly negotiations on an issue for control of territory need patience and forbearance to achieve a breakthrough thus outcomes are unlikely to be achieved in the short term and extended negotiations would be necessary.
Finally jingoism is best avoided and hard reality of avoiding an Line of Control (LOC) like situation on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) needs consideration for this will not be sustainable from the operational as well as the point of view resources expended to keep one soldier active in this harsh altitude and terrain.