Agreement on Disengagement on LAC: A Short, Positive, Step Forward…
Lt Gen (Dr) Rakesh Sharma (Retd.), Distinguished Fellow, VIF

Phased, coordinated and verified manner is the operative part of the agreement on disengagement in Eastern Ladakh, commencing with the North and South Bank of the Pangong Tso. It was also accepted that there are still some outstanding issues with regard to deployment and patrolling at some other points along the LAC…, which, will be the focus of further discussions with the Chinese side. There was reiteration of complete disengagement at the earliest and abide fully by the bilateral agreements and protocols. Nine months into a tense face to face military stand-off and nine Apex level field commanders’ intensive negotiations at Chushul/ Moldo has brought about this seeming thaw! It had become apparent that the negotiating positions were as per the directions that the PLA delegation received from Central Military Commission (CMC), and Indian military negotiating team from hierarchy in India.

The rationale of why did China initiate the aggression, has been debated extensively, and any summation will only be repetitive. The challenge was accepted with a strong national will, with methodical mobilisation at the super high altitude areas by Indian Armed Forces. The resolute action at Galwan on 15 Jun 2020, the exhibition of the logistical strength to sustain the inducted troops over the winter, and the game-changer riposte by the Indian army units in Chushul sector, at the heights astride Spanggur Gap and the Fingers area of North of Pangong Tso, has proven many a point. The posturing along the LAC and preparations of Indian Armed Forces provided immense confidence nationally, and post 30 Aug 2020, Kailash Range heights, unbeknown till then, became household names.

Intense rightful crystal gazing by commentariat, can be broadly summed up with total trust deficit, the premonitions for summer of 2021, the likelihood of targeting fresh areas, and unlikelihood of China allowing status quo ante of April 2020. The Kailash Range heights hence caught the imagination of the scholarly as a strong leverage to obtain acquiescence of the PLA. The situation broadly on the LAC and the McMahon Line was another matter altogether. Despite the resilience, spirit and hardiness of the Indian troops and determination of commanders on the ground, the increasingly onerous task of managing the cycle of relief and replacement of units, health and hygiene concerns and the logistical management are severe constrains.

A rarest of the rare happenstance, barrel opposing barrel of adversarial armoured tanks in very close proximity, the loaded artillery guns and the ubiquitous ever vigilant infantry-men with fingers on the triggers, has created an intensely tense environment. After the events of Galwan, to ensure fire-control under amended rules of engagement by itself is kudos to the rank and file and junior commanders. Undoubtedly situations are presenting on near daily basis that, if it were on the LOC, could have easily led to opening of fire. Those who have undergone similar circumstances can well imagine the hair-trigger volatile situation in Eastern Ladakh is ripe for escalation – the end-state of which can best be unpredictable. The Indian military negotiators at Chushul/ Moldo, mindful of zero-trust, attempted to bring about status quo ante over hundreds of hours of discussions. Apparently by the eighth round it was evident that a comprehensive disengagement over the LAC in Eastern Ladakh with establishment of protocols to avoid recurrence would remain elusive. The inevitable options remained of retaining tense-border or proceeding for a phased, sub-sector based disengagement.

At this juncture it is mandatory to reiterate that the concept of the LAC is gravelly flawed, and seeking ‘peace and tranquillity’ with whatever protocols, is such nebulous environment, and an expansionist adversary, is implausible. As an aside, the LOC of over 750 km was delineated based upon signed 27 map sheets formed into 19 mosaics. There is a repeated mention of 1959 Line, which was proposed by PM Zhou en Lai ‘to ensure the tranquillity’ by ‘’... withdrawing 20 kilometers from the so-called McMahon line in the east, and from the line up to which each side exercises actual control in the west…”, while accepting that “…two countries have never formally delimited this boundary and that there is a divergence of views between the two countries regarding the boundary.”

The mountainous severely undulating terrain with large number of ravines, and lakes, absolutely mandates very detailed map-delineation duly demarcated on ground. As is gleaned from available literature, only certain grid references with significant distances between them were provided in 1960, joining which it was and is impracticable way to construct a Line! It obviously implies that without any demarcation or delineation that is without detailed correlation of continuous latitudes and longitudes, the LAC has remained a grossly fuzzy logic. To their credit, units and formations (and the ITBP) tasked to manage the LAC over last six decades, stood their ground despite this grave PERCEPTION PARALLAX.

It must also be stated that even the PLA troops that came in contact over the years in many areas, were either themselves unaware of the location of their perception of the LAC or acted so in attempting to (unsuccessfully) push the envelope! Without a background, inexplicably the ‘estuary’ of Galwan and Shyok Rivers, as also the Kailash range features occupied by India, were stated by Global Times as Chinese territory. The MEA spokesperson during the currency of the current impasse had categorically stated that “…India has never accepted the so-called unilaterally defined 1959 LAC. This position has been consistent and well known, including to the Chinese.” To sum it here, the 1959 Line was unacceptable to India then, as it is now, and that Line itself is a typical Chinese obfuscation. It has limited ground relevance – which is mandatory for effective border-management. The only end-state that can be envisaged as providing stability is a Joint Military Commission that will delineate and demarcate the LAC, maybe even with a no-man’s land. The no-man’s land or a patrolling moratorium over an area has pitfalls in infringements in a no-trust environment and unsuccessful verification regime, but maybe these are best way out of the imbroglio, which has the indications of leading to conflictual scenario.

That brings in contemplation, the Agreement on Disengagement on the LAC. What in finality led the Chinese accepting to disengage, and whether China achieved its aims in the aggression can be anomalous. Any and all rationale can only be conjectures. Three distinctive postulations features stand out in deliberations. First is that the disengagement will be in a phased, coordinated manner. In the North Bank of Pangong Tso, methodology is fairly explicit, in dismantling erected structures, move back of forces to own posts outside the contentious Fingers 4-8 area without diluting claims, and the temporary moratorium on military activities including patrolling. Indeed, this should be eminently-doable in a short time frame, albeit the verification mechanisms including patrolling in proximity on the Lake will require fine-tuning. The mechanisms for disengagement on the South Bank of Pangong Tso (or the Chushul Sector) are not categorical as yet. Without venturing into speculation, this withdrawal will take some credible time, especially the infantry fortifications. The monitoring and verification procedures will be strenuous, and the process may not be as smooth as the one in North Bank.

Second are the other ‘friction points’ or outstanding issues which, will be the focus of further discussions like the Depsang plains and the Hot Spring-Gogra Area. Of these, the Hot Springs-Gogra may find measures to disengage and deescalate in the summer months, as the accessibility to the area improves. Depsang Plateau has remained contentious since four decades, when, to avoid serious confrontation, patrolling points to limit ITBP/ Army patrols were emplaced. Willy-nilly, nearly two-thirds of Depsang Plateau remained outside the purview of physical domination by us, which allowed PLA to establish intensive infrastructure and habitat in the area. The direct access to Depsang is along two Nallahs – the Jiwan and Raki, more so the latter. It is instructive to note that Chinese have been claiming, at times patrolling, areas close to own post of Burtse (well west of Depsang Plateau) on the basis of the 1959 Line, for which PLA patrols have to traverse the entire Raki Nallah, which led to occasional patrol clashes. It is apparent that in the current stand-off (as had happened in 2013 also), while PLA has denied us patrolling to the patrol points on Depsang Plateau East of the area Bottleneck inside the Raki Nallah, we too have denied PLA patrols movement West of Bottleneck, to their claimed area close to Burtse. Depsang, whenever taken up, will require intensive negotiations.

Third is the larger context of management of the LAC, and the apprehensions based upon historic Chinese duplicity. Let us contemplate positives of the events of 2020. One, it has become crystal-clear that unlike considered previously, China will remain a territorial anxiety for India for a long time, and any soft-pedalling the issue is at national security’s peril. As China gains increasing strength, the threat may manifest more clearly. Two, as events flowed, in one and all manners, the nation and the armed forces looked into the eyes of the big-bully and accepted the challenge, pushing larger brouhaha of asymmetry in comprehensive national power out of reckoning. And three, immense confidence has been generated in the armed forces, and that has also provided urgency and focus in national debates and pointed direction to overmatch the adversary.

There is no gainsaying the fact that the border-relations post-Galwan will be bedded upon lack of trust. Indian Army negotiators and policy makers, and commanders and troops on ground are well aware, that in any manner, Chinese back-tracking, rescinding or infringement of this Agreement is possible, and for which China can raise bogus or diversionary issues. We would have been aware of the same negotiating behaviour when we entered into Treaties/ Agreements and accepted Protocols in 1993, 1996, 2005 and 2013. In worst case scenarios, an infringement could take any form, of surreptitiously occupying areas vacated by us North or South of Pangong Tso, or on completion of this current Agreement refusal to move to the next phase of negotiations or opening another front altogether. In that eventuality we would be denied the strength of the leverage we have in the heights astride the Spanggur Gap.

In negotiating the Agreement, the professional military negotiators well aware of the lacunae mentioned above must have examined the options available thereinafter. If the operation of 29/30 Aug 2020, that caught national imagination, was planned and executed meticulously by the formations on ground was Plan C, then in the repertoire would exist Plans A, B, D, E…! This must be granted! Newer names, like the Kailash Range, can be flashed across spectrum. Presently, unlike May-June 2020, the capabilities have already been created. In any case, if Indian Armed Forces will get hard-pressed to push the envelope on the vigil on the LAC (and the air and the seas) in case of infringement of the Agreement, it will force the PLA’s hand commensurately too.

In sum, the current Agreement is a short though positive and firm step, in attempting way out of very tense situation on the LAC. There is an obvious similar perception and understanding in both India and China that a war (even a limited one) is to be avoided. To credibly remove the threat of war, the first step is to commence disengagement even if phased, to minimise the likelihood of even a limited conventional war. There may be many pitfalls in the execution of the Agreement, or this might become the baby step towards eventual demarcation and delineation of LAC.

With the larger threat having retained its shadow, force asymmetry with China is another issue, and in longer term analysis mandates a separate study. In the interim, we must retain confidence in the armed forces to deliver, when need be!

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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