Dialogue and diplomacy backed by a capable, competent and respected military and political will is the way forward.
Maj Gen Jagatbir Singh
A breakthrough in the talks was unexpected by either side, I doubt if either side harboured that as an ambition. However, maintaining a formal and structured dialogue during one of the most complex border standoffs with China post-1962 is in itself an achievement. Further, enlarging the dialogue from a purely military dialogue to military and diplomatic dialogue by both sides is a step forward and an indication that both countries are now focusing on moving ahead.
The issues that need to be resolved in order of priority are first, no further escalation by either side. This is both by fresh incidents or provocative movements and thereafter by the deployment of additional forces and combat equipment into this Sector. The mere fact that there has not been fresh violence since the last talks can be indicative of some degree of agreement on this issue.
The next step is disengagement, ensuring the troops physically in contact step back to mutually accepted lines and are no longer within direct firing range of each other’s kinetic weapons.
The third issue is de-escalation, this will pose the biggest challenge, troops have to be moved back, areas occupied have to be vacated, additional troops and weapons moved into the region reduced. The logical principle should be ‘first in and first out’. Monitoring and reporting this has to be based on trust as it is a purely a bilateral issue. Unfortunately, a trust deficient exists.
These are not simple issues; which troops fall back first, in what order is this carried out, to what extent do they fall back and what are the safeguards and protocols to ensure that reoccupation of these areas does not take place. For example on the North Bank of the Pangong Tso; India was at Finger 4 and China was at Finger 8, prior to May 2020, both countries need to get back to these positions and thereafter patrol the area in between these Fingers as was being done earlier. All this involves a great deal of staff work and coordination and needs a lot of mutual understanding to work out its implementation. The first step remains a broad agreement which does not seem visible presently.
Once, these issues are resolved to an acceptable degree by both sides, the focus has to be on the delineation of the boundary followed by its demarcation which is not within the scope of these talks but will need to take place at the military, diplomatic and political level.
Talking also conveys and helps understand the stance being taken by the other nation. In India’s case, our stance is restoring status quo ante prior to May 2020, whereas the Chinese are now insisting on the 1959 claim line of the LAC. No meeting ground between the two is possible in the present circumstances.
China felt they needed to ‘test the waters’ by carrying out the intrusions at a time when India and the world was preoccupied with the outbreak of Covid-19 which had been contained in China. The timing is not a coincidence as in 1962; the war took place when the world was facing its most defining threat then; the Cuban missile crisis.
What they never expected was the violent response at Galwan where our soldiers bravely stood up to their aggression in a bloody, brutal, pre-medieval brawl. Thereafter in a well-timed and coordinated action, we were able to occupy dominating features on the Kailash Range achieving total surprise, demonstrating our abilities and capabilities. It is evident that the military has learnt its lessons from 1962 and are adequately prepared to take on any challenge. China has now realised that we will stand up aggressively to defend our sovereignty and territorial integrity.
The timing of the dialogue, during the handing taking over a period of the Corps Commanders, is indicative both of the continuity and importance is given to this by India. Both sides though prepared for a continued deployment, are well aware of the costs involved of a prolonged deployment, turning the LAC into an active border like the LoC will be prohibitively expensive.
In remote, inaccessible areas with rarefied air, where breathing is also a struggle the toll on both men, machines and material is tremendous. Our troops however are highly experienced in high altitude warfare having been deployed in Siachen since 1984. China wants to force India to increase its military spending and divert resources from health, education, food security and infrastructure development.
We are no doubt in the midst of one of the most complex security challenges being faced by our country. Our balanced response has demonstrated that we are not pushovers. For both nations resolving historical issues peacefully may seem unachievable but any other option is clearly unacceptable, hence the necessity to engage. Dialogue and diplomacy backed by a capable, competent and respected military and political will is the way forward.
(The author is an Indian Army Veteran. Views expressed are personal.)