One year after the clash at Galwan between the Indian Army and the PLA, news has emerged that China has proposed Divisional Commander-level talks between teams from both sides headed by officers of the rank of Major General. This has reportedly been conveyed to India through various levels including through the ‘hotline’. Media has quoted an anonymous senior officer from the defence establishment saying China has proposed these talks for negotiating disengagement at Hot Springs and Gogra Post.
India lost 20 troops in the Galwan clash last year when the PLA suddenly attacked our patrol. But the violent response from our troops through the night inflicted numerous PLA casualties; estimates ranging from 40 to over 100. After many months, China sheepishly acknowledged that four PLA troops were killed in the clash on night of June 15-16, 2020. China rounded up its citizens doubting figures of only four PLA killed in the Galwan clash on social media. There is no doubt that the Galwan clash jolted the PLA into inadequacies of its manpower.
India and China have already held 11 rounds of Corps Commander-level meetings in Eastern Ladakh to resolve the standoff. Both sides agreed to disengage from all friction points during the 9th round of talks. This resulted in disengagement from both banks of the Pangong Lake, as part of which India gave up its strategic advantage of vacating the Kailash Range. In the disengagement along the North Bank of Pangong Lake, PLA has moved from atop the India 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.
The 10th round of the military dialogue took place on February 20 two days after both militaries concluded the withdrawal of troops and weapons from the North and South banks of the Pangong Lake. The talks were largely inconclusive. The 11th round of talks was held on April 9 after which for the first time no joint statement was issued. However on April 10, a statement issued by the Indian side said that the two sides “agreed on the need to resolve the outstanding issues in an expeditious manner in accordance with the existing agreements and protocols” and it was highlighted “that completion of disengagement in other areas would pave the way for the two sides to consider de-escalation of forces and ensure full restoration of peace and tranquility and enable progress in bilateral relations”.
Over the past year, PLA has constructed permanent structures in new locations they occupied last year in Eastern Ladakh, rotated all its troops, ramped up logistics and deployed new weaponry; armoured assault vehicles, HQ-17A field air defence missile system, new PHL-11 122mm caliber self-propelled long-range multiple rocket launcher system (MLRS) and new self-propelled rapid-fire mortars. A new UAV capable of plateau operations was flown by the PLA for patrolling and search in Kailash mountain region on May 25. Government sources have now revealed that China is conducting final trials of its Xian H-20 strategic bombers opposite Ladakh. This is apparently to convey to India that China has more than an answer to Indian acquisition of Rafale fighter jets. Final trials of the Xian H-20 strategic bombers commenced on June 8 and are likely to continue till June 22, leading to celebrations to mark 100 years of formation of China’s Communist Party (CCP).
In the above backdrop, why is China proposing the Divisional Commander-level talks at this juncture to discuss disengagement from Hot Springs and Gogra especially where PLA has intruded into Indian Territory? Moreover, China makes no mention of Depsang which has become the largest ‘forced’ no-patrol zone; where our patrols cannot even approach Patrol Points 10, 11, 11A, 12 and 13 that were established ‘short’ of the LAC, as recommended by the China Study Group and approved by the CCS years back, China having established structure and surveillance equipment at Y Junction which is 20 km inside India. Besides PLA has also pitched tents on the Indian side in Demchok which it calls disputed.
Media has quoted the Army Chief saying that negotiations with China take time. That is true but those comparing the present situation with resolving the standoff at the India-China standoff at Sumdorong Chu near Tawang during 1986 that took eight years are naïve. At Sumdorong Chu India had the strategic advantage which is not the case in Eastern Ladakh any more after India vacated the Kailash Range.
There are many postulations why this Chinese offer of talks now. Some feel it is in line with President Xi Jinping’s latest dictum to portray a more loveable face of China. But that hardly can be the case with the type of troop and weaponry built up not only opposite Eastern Ladakh but all along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the feverish pitch of completing the Lhasa-Nyingchi high-speed railway network by end June 2020 terminating less than 15 km opposite Tuting in Arunachal Pradesh, constructing new villages in Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh plus the recent muscle flexing by Chinese aircraft in Malaysian and Taiwanese airspace; latest intrusion in Taiwan’s airspace on June 14 involved 18 fighter jets, four bombers, two ant-submarine aircraft and one early warning aircraft.
Another reason why China wants talks for disengagement at Hot Springs and Gogra possibly is because PLA has already intruded into Indian Territory and China would like to force a no-patrol zone by demanding that Indian troops move westward in their own territory while the PLA also withdraws to some distance. How large that no-patrol zone would be cannot be guessed but as mentioned above, it is some 10 km on North Bank of Pangong Lake which denies out troops to patrol up to Finger 8 as was the case prior to April 2020.
China perhaps also wants to test our malleability. Will we start discussing Hot Springs and Gogra as suggested by China, will we give a firm response that we want to discuss Depsang first or at least insist that we must discuss all three together – Depsang, Hot Springs and Gogra? While India is reportedly considering the Chinese offer for talks, it would be prudent for us to insist that we discuss disengagement from Depsang in the very next round of talks, either exclusively or together with Hot Springs and Gogra. Besides, we should not agree to establish new buffer zones (or no-patrol zones) by giving up more of our territory.
It would be ideal if China agrees to withdraw to pre-April 2020 positions but that is unlikely given the type of permanent structures it has built over last one year. Finally, China is a rogue country which just cannot be trusted. Behind its façade of next round of talks, it may have already planned the next conflagration. Significantly inputs from Afghan intelligence services on June 15 reveal that the Taliban offensive in Faryab Province and in number of other northern provinces of Afghanistan is being led by retired Pakistani army officers. This is also confirmed by sources close to Abdul Rashid Dostum who is organizing the anti-Taliban militia. It is well known that both China and Pakistan support the Taliban.
Seems like China is testing our resolve as to where we stand. Offering discussions in parts now should have been blocked in the initial meetings itself: all the disputed points will be taken simultaneously and no part progress and that too China should not the decide unilaterally. We need to stick to our points and face the Chinese bully strongly. Your second last para summarises the present development.