The Special Representatives (SR) for border talks for India and China, Ajit Doval and Wang Yi, spoke on 05 July and initiated steps for de-escalation. The steps envisage both sides pulling back sone distance, creating a buffer zone to prevent any physical clash of troops, while suspending patrolling activities temporarily. India continues to maintain matching force levels as the Chinese. Trust deficit will overhang all discussions between the two nations. Post the talks, pull back commenced in some regions, which, as per the agreement, is being monitored. The buffer zone is expected to be an interim measure, prior to complete de-escalation. It may be months before normalcy is restored along the LAC and Indian forces recommence their patrolling activities.
There have been views expressed in media circles that if the Doval-Wang talks had been held earlier, the incident at Galwan could have been avoided. Strategically, political talks are initiated when other avenues are exhausted or appear stalled. Both occasions of political connect, post the incident at Galwan and current SR deliberations, were initiated by China, possibly because India appeared to dig in its heels.
India had continued to insist that ongoing level of talks between the two senior army leaders and the Working Mechanism for Consultations and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs were appropriate channels. This conveyed that India did not consider the Ladakh intrusion to be a major threat and was militarily prepared for any Chinese misadventures.
China, which broke existing agreements, initiated the crisis and subsequently accepted to discuss de-escalation, implied that either it had achieved its strategic goals or realised that further escalation would be counterproductive. It did achieve surprise in the initial stages but rapid counter deployment with matching force levels prevented further ingress. China is aware that if it desires to escalate beyond current levels it would require far greater forces than currently deployed.
The weather in Ladakh is unlikely to remain conducive for maintaining large force levels post a few months. Decision for construction of troop habitat for winters as also stocking of additional supplies due to winter disruptions would need to be taken early. This is common to both sides. Chinese deployment in the Galwan valley is also at risk of being washed away by increased flow of water in the river, compelling China to reconsider its options.
While talks at multiple levels would continue, final restoration of the situation to pre-May 2020 levels is still some distance away. The decision to create buffer zones is only a temporary step to contain violent clashes. Its continuation will be determinant on how long China desires to maintain additional forces.
Mounting global pressure and Asian nations uniting against Chinese offensive actions could have made them realise that acting against one adversary may open doors for multiple threats, including from US aircraft carrier groups in their vicinity. Its losing global support indicated that the world is unwilling to accept Chinese actions, whether it be its wolf warrior diplomacy, economic threats or military coercion. The changed global scenario could have resulted in the Chinese reconsidering options of enhancing pressure by launching an offensive to push forth their claims.
Indian economic actions and changing its stance on the ‘one China policy’ was the first indicator that India would hold its ground and not bow down to Chinese pressure. Comments from ruling party spokespersons on India considering Aksai Chin as part of Ladakh, reinforced the Indian stand. The visit of the Indian Prime Minister to Ladakh was a message which could also not be ignored. The visit may have been symbolic, but his words were aimed at conveying a strong message.
He had stated, ‘the age of expansionism is over, this is the age of development. History is witness, that expansionist forces have either lost or were forced to turn back.’ This was directly aimed at China and it was forced to respond in multiple forums. His mention of the bravery of the Indian soldier was to convey that the myth of the PLA had been blown to smithereens by Col Santosh Babu and his soldiers. India had no desire to pull back or permit China to gain a strategic advantage.
The fact that the Government was not seeking to engage at the political level was based on the trust which the Government imposed on its armed forces which convinced the polity that the situation in Ladakh was under control and it was prepared for the long haul.
Since the commencement of the incursion, the army has matched Chinese deployment strength for strength. It has never let them gain the upper hand. Attempts by China to push forward were blocked. The violence at Galwan displayed the ferocity, doggedness and willingness of the Indian soldier to hold on at all costs. India announcing its casualties indicated that it was proud of the determination displayed by its soldiers and would never permit China to gain the upper hand.
The army would have assessed Chinese staying power, possible collusion with Pakistan and options by which Pak could exploit the current scenario. Its move forward of troops to counter the Chinese in Ladakh had not weakened it on any other front nor reduced forces essential to control terrorism in the valley and infiltration along the LoC.
The Government understood that the Indian army could take a firm stand and not buckle under Chinese might. This faith made the Government continue with existing channels of communication and not seek to activate the political level. For the Chinese, it conveyed that India is unwilling to blink.
The decisions taken in the SR talks would have been in consultation with the army. The Chinese actions would be closely monitored with minimum troop contacts between the two forces as anger still runs deep. Though these are still early days in the process of de-escalation, India has conveyed that it will not accept Chinese military coercion and insist on status quo ante. India will defend its claim lines. Globally, India has proved that the PLA can be challenged and contained.
The author is Major general (retd)