China’s attempted assault on the southern banks of the Pangong Tso on Saturday night has raised alarm on several fronts and, more disconcertingly, exposed a wide gap between what Beijing says through diplomatic channels and what the PLA actually does on the ground.
For weeks now, China has been reposing faith in the disengagement process through its statements, conveying a sense of progress and expressing intent to resolve. India has gone along with the hope that the slight pullback — meant to create distance between agitated troops — will eventually translate into de-escalation through a withdrawal of additional troops from eastern Ladakh.
But the truth is after the pullback from Galwan and some adjoining areas, the process has hit a wall. In Pangong Tso itself, Chinese troops withdrew only a bit and then stalled. And instead, the PLA has made preparations to sit out the winter. All military-to-military conversations in the past month have been quite rough and hostile, at times plain rude.
The chill has also set in on the regular hotline conversations between local commanders. It’s believed that even the initial pleasantries are not being exchanged these days. The tone and tenor, by all accounts, have begun to reflect the aggressive posture of PLA on the ground.
Doubts over PLA’s intent arose when the Pangong Tso disengagement conversation started to derail after the Chinese side proposed equidistant withdrawal. It was always understood that time taken to reach back current positions would determine the distance each side will pullback.
China has motorable roads and its forces can reach faster than Indian troops who have to walk large parts of the territory. So, PLA goes back more distance than India, knowing well that both sides will take equal time to reach back. Now, this fact based formula has informed India-China boundary management conversations for decades. Yet, the Chinese insistence to press ahead with the proposal raised doubts over the sincerity of the current negotiation.
The disengagement talks would run into hours without result but provoked a lot of heated exchange. India knew the discussions were stumbling but China kept conveying hope diplomatically, be it through statements of its ambassador in India as well as the Chinese foreign office, or for that matter its state-sponsored media. The problem was PLA was doing just the opposite, being aggressive and intransigent.
PLA’s Saturday night action needs to be understood against this backdrop. While exact numbers are not known, it’s believed that China breached the disengagement pact and started moving hundreds of troops to occupy tactically important hill features around the southern bank of the lake. India picked up the movement and preempted China by sending its troops to occupy some of the heights.
In the end, the disengagement truce was broken. No significant physical harm has been done so far but we have tensions running high as troops are now face-to-face with each other. All of this again raises the issue of trust. China started talking pullback before the June 15 incident and yet put up a tent at Galwan that became a source of contest, leading to a deadly combat. And now too, while talking disengagement, it has chosen to provoke.
In the absence of trust, motives come under doubt. Indian forces will have to assume that PLA’s actions are either unrestrained or, even worse, part of a well-orchestrated script where diplomacy is being used to provide cover to something more sinister.
In any which way, it’s clear now that disengagement has little shelf life without larger de-escalation. India has to test China’s intent by pressing for the latter and until then, be aware as well as prepared for the script to change dramatically overnight.