An Anatomy of Disengagement

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An Article which focuses on the disengagement and de-escalation process between India and China in Ladakh.

1.    Context of the Article

Raksha Mantri Hon’ble Rajnath Singh on February 11,2021 announced in the Indian Parliament that ‘India and China have reached an agreement vis a vis Disengagement and further De-escalation-’ and that ‘India will not even cede an inch of her territory’.

He was referring to the monumental agreement signed on the 9-10 February 2021 which stipulates the following –

  1. Status Quo ante on North and South Bank of the Pangong Tso lake to be restored
  2. Both sides to cease forward deployments in a Phased, Coordinated and Verified Manner.
  3. Chinese side will go back to East of Finger 8 to its post at Sirijab.
  4. The Indian side will go to West of Finger 3 at the bilaterally known Dhan Singh Thapa Post.
  • All Infrastructure built during these past 10 months in the No-Patrol Zone in support of these troops to be demolished and no new infrastructure to be constructed.

The Most Important Takeaway from the above agreement is that the Chinese have gone back to where they came from to east of Finger 8(which is the Line of Actual Control according to the Indian Perception).

The Disengagement is underway as I write this and the 10th Corps Commander Meeting was scheduled on 21st February, to take the disengagement further to the subsequent steps.

  • No breakthrough was achieved at the Corps Commander Meeting and the outcome merely talked of following the guidance of the consensus reached between the Heads of States.
  • Aiming to take the disengagement process in eastern Ladakh forward, India and China exchanged proposals on outstanding issues in the region during the 10th round of military-level talks between the two sides that started 10 am Saturday and continued past 2 am Sunday.
  • “Some forward movement” in discussions on friction points at Hot Springs and Gogra Post can be expected first before any move on the more contentious Depsang Plains, it is speculated.(see map later in the article)

It is said that this is the first time that the Chinese have shown surprising alacrity in disengagement, before even India started its own disengagement process.

Now, a keen observer of the Border Standoff will not fail to observe and wonder about the surprising departure in the sentiment of the disengagement process; he/she will certainly contrast one of the first attempts of disengagement at Galwan vis a vis Pangong Tso in February 2021.

And what is the inference adduced from this contrasting exercise?

That there is a similarity in both the attempts(Galwan and Pangong Tso), which is the element of surprise.

In the former case, the ‘surprise’ was ominous to say the least when Beijing caught New Delhi off guard at Galwan, when the Peoples’ Liberation Army defied every iota of mutual understanding by transgressing into Indian Territory with unbridled provocation and bellicosity- a move that further amplified the restraint and dutifulness to orders shown by the Indian Army by not firing even a single shot when 15 Indian Soldiers were martyred and a score of PLA’s comrades fell.

However, the ‘surprise’ of alacrity by the Chinese to disengage(moving back from gained territory) in the latter case Prima Facie, manifested an aberration from the essence of Geo-Politics and Balance of Power, but again, that is a cursory analysis of the series of events, but after a holistic reading of it, we can safely deduce the fact that is is far from an aberration by the Chinese but fits squarely in their ‘gung ho/ Wolf Warrior Diplomacy’.

I would like to substantiate my argument with Geography.

At about 11 pm on 28 August, an Indian surveillance team first noticed the movement of some Chinese armoured personnel carriers (APCs) in Moldo.(See map below for approximate location)

This was followed by drone surveillance, and the People’s Liberation Army troops’ movement indicated they were going towards the LAC, and to a specific feature. Sources refused to identify the feature, citing operational reasons.

They said at this moment, specialised Indian units raced for the heights and dominated them — going even quicker than what had been worked out when multiple scenarios were being studied.

It is speculated that around 1000 Chinese Soldiers were heading to ingress into Indian Territory, which would certainly have been a fait accompli had the Indian Army not manifested the requisite alacrity to take strategic heights of Rezang la, Reqin La, Gurung and Magar Hills which overlook the Spanggur gap and the Moldo Garrison.(The Epicentre of the 1962 War)

Thus, in this context, it is ‘not surprising’ to see the Chinese Alacity to disengage from Pangong Tso as a Quid Pro Quo for the Indian Army to give up the heights overlooking Spanggur.

Now, it is pertinent to ask whether this really is a disengagement.

Yes and No. Logistically, Yes. Geo-Politically, No.

It needs to be understood that there are two aspects to diffusing tensions and restraining conflagrations- Disengagement and Deescation.

Disengagement is the species and Deescalation is the Genus.

In the sense that Disengagement cannot happen without De Escalation but the converse could be true, since Deescalation is a broader term and involves Diplomatic maneuvers, in the form of Economic Assistance or Confidence Building Measures in Other Sectors to overshadow the strained relation.

But, this ‘converse’ has nothing to do with the Republic of India since the External Affairs Ministry led by the visionary leadership of Dr. S Jaishankar was prudent enough to exhort that it cannot be Business As Usual with Beijing unless there is a conclusive, bilateral satisfaction to the Border Conflict.

2. What is the impact and viability  of Disengagement on the ground in Pangong Tso and Other Sectors?

(As seen in the picture above, there are other friction besides Pangong Tso, viz-friction points of Patrolling Point 15 (PP15) in Hot Springs, PP17A in Gogra Post, PPs 10, 11, 11A, 12, 13 in Depsang Plains, and the Charding-Ninglung Nallah (CNN) in the Demchok area)

It remains Unclear whether China will manifest the same intensity of Alacrity that it showed to disengage from Pangong Tso, given the fact that the leverage India held is no longer there.

It is also pertinent to note Northern Command in charge Lt. Gen YK Joshi’s statement which says that, “We occupied the heights with a purpose to push the negotiations to disengagement. It was meant to give us an advantage, but it cannot be an advantage in perpetuity. We achieved what we wanted to achieve, namely the disengagement in the North Bank”

But it would be a gross disservice to this analysis if the larger principle is not understood, therefore reading between the lines is an imperative here; which is analyzing the Objective of China – to unilaterally define the Line of Control according to Beijing’s whims and fancies.

However, the fact that the Chinese went back without achieving their sole aim in the greater Ladakh Region is a testimony to the fact that China went back not because it lost interest in the region, but because India answered China in a language it understands- i.e, the Language of Strength.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the inference of this Show of Strength and the viability of its repetition remains a potent tool of diplomacy for New Delhi to deal with its Northern Neighbour.

3. International Law and the Legal Aspect of Disengagement

○     Brief History of LAC


The entire concept of LAC is premised on an abstract understanding which is at stark variance for both parties and stakeholders involved-.

The concept was floated by the then Chinese Premier Zhou-EnLai in a letter to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1959.

There are several agreements and Understandings which govern the modalities of the LAC.

  1. 1993 Agreement of Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility
  2. 1996 Agreement Between the Government of the Republic of India and the Government of the People’s Republic of China on Confidence-Building Measures in the Military Field Along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas
  3. 2005 : Agreement between the Government of the Republic of India and the Government of the People’s Republic of China on the Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question
  4. 2012, : India and China agreed to establish a Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination : Agreed to “study ways and means to conduct and strengthen exchanges and cooperation between military personnel and establishments…in the border areas.”
  5. The2013 Border Defence Cooperation Agreement lists several mechanisms to reduce misunderstandings and improve communication. Article VI of the agreement prohibits either side from tailing the patrols of the other “in areas where there is no common understanding of the line of actual control”.

 The Hon’ble Defense Minister has pointed out that the amassing of troops went against the bilateral agreements of 1993 and 1996.

A key element of both the 1993 and 1996 agreements is that the two sides would keep their forces in the areas along the LAC to a minimum level.

 However, the agreements do not define what comprises the minimum level.

The 1996 agreement limits the deployment of major categories of armaments close to the LAC, including tanks, infantry combat vehicles, guns with 75-mm or bigger calibre, mortars with 120-mm or above and various missiles. It also limits combat aircraft from flying within 10 km of the LAC.

It stipulates that neither side “shall open fire, cause bio-degradation, use hazardous chemicals, conduct blast operations or hunt with guns or explosives within two km” from the LAC.

Use of firearms on the LAC is strictly regulated as per the agreements of 1993, 1996 and 2005.

The 1993 and 1996 agreements also mandate that pending a final solution to the boundary question, the two sides shall strictly respect the LAC.

Further in these agreements, India and China committed themselves to clarification and confirmation of the LAC to reach a common understanding of the alignment.

However, this process has made little progress since 2003. Both sides have so far exchanged maps only in the central sector, leading to overlapping claims at several points due to “differences in perception”.

Thus, in the context of the above agreements, it is writing on the wall that one can’t sign peace and tranquility w/o knowing what peace and tranquility is.

Moreover, The Chinese recalcitrance to define the Line of Control in exactitude could lie in the greater equation of Great Power Conflict in the Wider Indo-Pacific.

4. Principles of International Law

Now, let’s get into the nuances of the Border Issue.

Mr. Henry McMohan made a Distinction between Delimitation and Demarcation.

Firstly, let us consider the two main processes in boundary making. Formerly, there were no precise terms distinguishing the one from the other until Sir Henry McMahon gave different meanings to the words delimitation and demarcation after discovering that the dictionary treated them as synonymous.

This distinction between delimitation and demarcation is now generally accepted.

Therefore, the delimitation of a boundary refers to all the proceedings connected with the determination of a boundary line in a treaty, an arbitral award or a boundary commission’s report as the case may be.

As opposed to that, demarcation could be done in the absence of a treaty based on mutual understandings between the troops, although again, shrouded in ambiguity.

Now, the LAC is a line which is bleakly ‘demarcated’ at certain areas, and not ‘delimited’.

Some also categorize it as an imaginary line on account of its ambiguity.

It is also Pertinent to note that the violation of treaty amounts to breaching the principle of ‘Pacta Sunt Servanda’ by holding it in contempt.


5. The changed nature of India-China Bilateral Relationship in the context of disengagement

The Greater objective of China behind the confrontation was to highlight the asymmetry in the Comprehensive National Powers of both countries- especially the Military and Economic aspects of it.

The Internationally Condemnable Act of the Chinese at Galwan was arguably the most significant watershed moment in the modern Diplomatic History of India and China.

The martyrdom of 15 Indian Soldiers was a living testament to the sheer precarity, instability and insecurity in the Bilateral Relationship of the two.

Post-Galwan there was a significant departure visible in the rhetoric of both countries.

Almost Every Indian PM has tried to make an engagement with China with ‘hopes’ of its bonhomie and bona fide intentions being reciprocated in the same tenor, but to no avail.

Right from Mr. Rajiv Gandhi, Atalji Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh and PM Narendra Modi, everyone has pointed out that there is ‘Space for Both to Grow’, ‘Co-operative Competitiveness’ ‘Differences not to turn into Disputes’ and the High Spirits of Wuhan and Mahabalipuram.

However, the language touted today is rather how to ‘tackle’ and not how to ‘engage’ with it.

The International Solar Alliance (OSOWOG) initiative by India is now seen as an answer to China’s BRI.

The Quad+ is potentially seen as India’s Answer to RCEP.

India, today, is unapologetically strengthening the Military Credentials of Quad, a significant departure from the Language at the Shangri-La Dialogue of Singapore in 2018.

The Free and Open Indo Pacific (FOIP) initiative is robustly spearheaded by India in conjunction with the United States.

The Resilient Supply-Chain initiative is also a case in point.

An argument could be based upon the silver lining surrounding the wider quagmire- is that it absolved all complacency surrounding the India-China Bilateral Relations and the Foreign Policy has become more streamlined and trenchant also, in a way that it not only involves containment but also active defense.

Thus, in conclusion we can say that the Disengagement Process was long due and is being carried out smoothly till date.

Let’s also hope that Both Parties take outward measures to resolve the bigger boundary issue at hand and Peace and Tranquility at the Line of Actual Control is restored at the earliest and maintained in perpetuity.

On this note, enforcing the Bilateral 5 Point Agreement of September between India and China would be a good start.

Malhar Satav,

Writer, Bharat Bhagya Vidhata

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