12th Round of India-China Military Talks
The 12th round of India-China Corps Commander-level talks were held on August 1 at the Chushul-Moldo border meeting point on the Indian side. This time the talks lasted for nine hours – some improvement from the earlier marathons. Media reports of same day said the talks wrapped up on a positive note amid growing hopes of reaching an understanding on the disengagement of troops from Hot Springs and that modalities will be worked out on how to take the process forward and a joint statement was expected later.
The Press Information Bureau release of August 2 covering the joint statement said, “The two sides had a candid and in-depth exchange of views on resolution of remaining areas related to disengagement along the LAC….The two sides noted that this round of meeting was constructive…..They agreed to resolve remaining issues in an expeditious manner in accordance with the existing agreements and agreement….The two sides agreed in the interim they will continue their effective efforts in ensuring stability along the LAC……and jointly maintain peace and tranquility.”
Media reports of June 6 quoting an official (MEA or MoD?) stated, “PLA is communicating that LAC disengagement in Pangong Tso has been completed as per objective of the leadership of two countries. They want the Gogra and Hot Springs disengagement to be resolved at a level of local commanders and not convene a special meeting. This clearly indicates that the Chinese want to drag the disengagement around Kongka La into tedious conversations of local commanders rather than look at the big picture of bilateral relationship.”
The 11th round of Corps Commander-level talks had been held on April 9 after which no joint statement was issued for the first time albeit media reports said the Indian side told the Chinese that disengagement at all friction points on the disputed border was crucial for the de-escalation of the conflict.
The 12th round of talks was perhaps prompted after the meeting between the foreign ministers of India and China on sidelines of the SCO Foreign Ministers Meet at Dushanbe, Tajikistan on July 14, 2021. The meeting being closed door, what was exactly discussed is not known. However, an MEA press release said that both ministers agreed to hold another round of Meeting of Senior Military Commanders at the earliest as agreed in the last WMCC (Working Mechanism for Consultation & Coordination) on June 25.
Before the 12th round of talks, Sun Weidong, Chinese Ambassador to India claimed on July 29 that troops from both sides have “disengaged” from the friction points of Galwan Valley and Pangong Tso lake. This was part disinformation because disengagement did take place from Pangong Tso area in February this year but the standoff in Galwan continues as was in aftermath of the clash in Galwan Valley in June 2020. There was no response by India to Weidong’s claim of July 29.
Recent media reports are talking of “some progress” having been made towards resolving the faceoff at patrolling point (PPs) 15, 17 and 17A in the Hot Springs-Gogra-Kongka La in a phased manner though the PLA had agreed to do so twice last year but did not do so. Another news report quoting a source states that PLA has agreed to step back from PP17A, also known as the Gogra Post, but is “not inclined” to move back from PP15 or the Hot Springs area, saying, “Modalities are being worked out. But on PP17A, there is an agreement to disengage. On PP15, China continues to insist that it is holding its own side of the LAC.”
Significantly, news reports of July 13, 2021 quoting security officials revealed that China has erected concrete watchtowers with CCTV cameras “inside India-claimed lines” in Ladakh to monitor Indian troop deployment. According to an official of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), “The watchtowers and posts erected by the Chinese overlook areas held by the Indian Army. It’s a matter of extreme concern.” An Intelligence Bureau (IB) official said, “The Indian patrols at these friction points are outnumbered by the Chinese. In a tit for tat, the Indian Army too is erecting poles fitted out with digital cameras to monitor Chinese movements inside their occupied zones.”
Both at Gogra and Hot Springs, Chinese intrusions are of a platoon size in violation of the mutual agreements reached in 1993 and 1995. Whether PLA will move back from PP 17A is debatable but if at all they do, which is a big if, they would demand a large buffer zone. Take the case of disengagement from North Bank of Pangong Tso where PLA has moved from atop the Indian post at Finger 4 to east of Finger 8 while India has moved from Finger 4 to between Fingers 2 and 3 (Dhan Singh Thapa Post), leaving a 10-km no-patrol zone with a metal road on the Chinese side leading up to Finger 4. Have we discussed what is the patrolling boundary along North Bank of the Pangong Lake?
For some inexplicable reasons India did not even insist that the 12th round of talks should also include PLA intrusions in Demchok and Depsang where our patrols cannot even approach PP 10, 11, 11A, 12 and 13, China having established structures and surveillance equipment at Y Junction which is 20 km inside Indian territory. Ironically, these PP’s were established ‘short’ of the LAC, as recommended by the China Study Group and approved by the CCS years back.
China is obviously playing the game of cat and mouse with little intention to disengage further from the intrusion areas. Terming these “friction points” is euphuism for public consumption at home. India’s pusillanimous attitude has also contributed to the current situation in Eastern Ladakh. India is yet to officially name China the aggressor for last year’s aggression. On the contrary, China has branded India aggressor from day one cashing on naïve statements by our lawmakers that we too keep going across the LAC.
PLA is unlikely to withdraw from Gogra, Hot Springs, Depsang and Demchok India having lost the advantage by vacating the Kailash Range in own territory. If at all they do agree, they will ask for large “buffer zones” by asking Indian troops to withdraw further west ceding more territory. Our official line that disengagement talks are continuing is correct but the fact remains these can carry on till cows come home every time PLA intrudes into our territory, as it is happening now. The actions of vacating the Kailash Range, not acknowledging Chinese intrusions and not calling China the aggressor has left us without any leverage in the talks.
Much has been made of the new hotline established between our troops at Kongra La (North Sikkim) and the PLA at Khamba Dzong on August 1 concurrent to the 12th round of talks in Eastern Ladakh. The hotline has led to our responses like furthering “the spirit of trust and cordial relations along the borders” and conveying “a message of friendship and harmony”. What more does China need to deflect from the intrusions in Depsang, Demchok, Gogra and Hot Springs in Eastern Ladakh. It is time we acknowledge that China cannot be our friend with Beijing not interested to resolve the border issue. Our political leadership needs to develop the spunk to confront China breaking through the bureaucratic-cum-diplomatic regime part of which may be working for Beijing. This is more than needed now with China realizing conflict cannot be a cake walk and either it goes for Taiwan or India.