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Headway at LAC as China, India begin troop pullback

July 07, 2020 05:47 AM

courtesy  HT JULY 7

Headway at LAC as China, India begin troop pullback
KEY TALKS : NSA Doval speaks to Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi; New Delhi monitors PLA withdrawal with caution

Indian Army trucks head towards Ladakh on the Manali-Leh highway on Monday. PTI
Rezaul H Laskar, Sutirtho Patranobis and Rahul Singh

New Delhi/Beijing : Chinese troops on Monday withdrew up to 1.5km from key friction points in eastern Ladakh, marking the beginning of an agreement between India and China on disengagement on the Line of Actual Control, according to people familiar with the matter.

The move towards de-escalation — the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) pulled back some distance from friction areas in Galwan Valley, Hot Springs and Gogra, with the Indian Army moving back proportionately; and there was some thinning of PLA troops at the sensitive Finger Area — followed a conversation on Sunday between the Special Representatives (SR) on the boundary issue, national security adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval and foreign minister Wang Yi.

This was the first contact between the Special Representatives, the highest bilateral mechanism on the border issue, since the stand-off began in early May. They agreed it was necessary to “ensure at the earliest complete disengagement of the troops along the LAC and de-escalation from India-China border areas for full restoration of peace and tranquillity”, said an external affairs ministry readout.

A statement from China’s foreign ministry in Beijing said both sides “stressed the importance of promptly acting on the consensus reached in the commander-level talks...and complete disengagement of the frontline troops as soon as possible”.

Experts believe that the developments reflect a positive movement, but also pointed to the nuanced distinctions in the two statements that indicate China may still be holding on to its unilateral territorial claims.

While the Indian statement did not refer to the June 15 incident -- in which 20 Indian and an unspecified number of Chinese troops were killed -- the Chinese statement quoted Wang as saying that the “right and wrong of what recently happened at the Galwan Valley is very clear” and China will continue to “effectively defend its territorial sovereignty and maintain peace and tranquillity in the border area”.

The people cited above, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that though steps have been taken towards disengagement, the Indian side will be watching and monitoring the situation carefully to ensure Beijing’s actions match its commitments.

“You had the agreement at the corps commanders meeting of June 6 but then you also had the incident of June 15,” one of the people said, referring to the violent clash at Galwan Valley in the middle of last month, which also caused unspecified Chinese casualties.

“At the talks between the Special Representatives, both sides agreed to take steps towards de-escalation and we will need to watch the situation closely,” the person added.

The people cited above described Monday’s developments as the culmination of intense bilateral engagements over the past few days at the diplomatic and military levels. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s unannounced visit to Ladakh on Friday was intended to send out a clear message that India was firm and committed in all defence and security matters, they added.

At the same time, external affairs minister S Jaishankar and foreign secretary Harsh Shringla had reached out to India’s key partners across the world, including the US, Russia, France and Germany, and shared India’s perspective on the standoff, the people said. Some of these partners, such as France, had publicly conveyed their support, while others privately demonstrated understanding for India’s position.

The corps commanders have met on the ground on June 6, 22 and 30, while the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination (WMCC) on border affairs has held two virtual meetings on June 5 and 24.

The statement from the external affairs ministry said both sides had agreed that they “should complete the ongoing disengagement process along the LAC expeditiously”.

“They re-affirmed that both sides should strictly respect and observe the Line of Actual Control and should not take any unilateral action to alter the status quo and work together to avoid any incident in the future that could disturb peace and tranquillity in border areas,” it said.

Doval and Wang, who last met in New Delhi on December 21, had what was described by the Indian side as a “frank and in-depth exchange of views” on recent developments in the western sector of the India-China border areas. The Chinese side characterised the talks as “candid and in-depth” and aimed at easing the border situation and reaching “positive common understandings”.

The Special Representatives agreed both sides should take guidance from the consensus of leaders of India and China that maintenance of peace and tranquillity in border areas is essential for development of bilateral relations and that the “two sides should not allow differences to become disputes”, the external affairs ministry said.

They also agreed that diplomatic and military officials of the two sides should continue their discussions, including under the framework of the WMCC, and implement understandings reached in a timely manner to achieve disengagement and de-escalation, it added. The Special Representatives also agreed to continue their conversations to “ensure full and enduring restoration of peace and tranquillity in the India-China border areas in accordance with the bilateral agreements and protocols”, the external affairs ministry said.

In the Chinese statement, Wang noted that bilateral ties have “withstood tests and made hard-won progress”.

“Both sides should adhere to the strategic assessment that instead of posing threats, the two countries provide each other with development opportunities. Both sides should pay great attention to the current complex situation facing China-India bilateral relations, and work together to overcome and turn it around as soon as possible,” Wang was quoted as saying.

Experts believe a lot will depend on the Chinese side delivering on its commitment to de-escalate and disengage along the LAC, where the PLA has arrayed thousands of troops, heavy vehicles and equipment and built numerous structures.

Former ambassador Rajiv Bhatia, distinguished fellow for foreign policy studies at Gateway House, said: “This is an evolving situation and clearly, if there is a genuine agreement and something has happened, it is good and should be welcomed. But the Indian position should be to verify, and only then think of trusting. The record of the past two months is such that we must verify before we can start believing [the Chinese].”

Bhatia said the Indian side’s focus should be on ensuring that “things come as close as possible to normalcy first, which is the restoration of the status quo”, before it thinks of the next steps in taking things forward.

Other experts expressed greater scepticism of Chinese motivations.

Strategic analyst Brahma Chellaney said that this was the third round of “disengagement” — the first was followed by the Galwan incident and the second by fresh Chinese incursions. He suggested there were key differences in the two statements. “What is missing from China’s statement is India’s assertion that both sides agreed to ‘strictly respect and observe the line of actual control’ and ‘not take any unilateral action to alter the status quo’. China also doesn’t use terms such as ‘de-escalation’, ‘earliest’, and ‘expeditiously’ which the Indian side does.”

He added that China, underpinning its fresh claim to Galwan Valley, had also alluded to India as the aggressor and asserted that it would ‘continue firmly safeguarding our territorial sovereignty’. “Winning without fighting is China’s Sun Tzu-style strategy. It has changed the South China Sea’s geopolitical map without firing a shot. Having grabbed vantage locations in Indian Ladakh without firing a shot, it is ready for disengagement to clinch another win without fighting.

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