Disengagement on the LAC on whose terms

One questions what has happened in the 19 rounds of military-to-military talks between India’s Army and the PLA.
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)

During the debate on the no-confidence motion in Lok Sabha in the Parliament’s monsoon session, I raised grave interrogatories qua the continuing transgression by China across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that is now in its 42nd month running.

Since the speech was in Hindi with no concurrent voiceover in English on Sansad TV or any other channel that carried the intervention live, let me reproduce those questions for this column.

The first query: Given that 41 months have elapsed since the transgressions commenced in April 2020, has the government discerned the political and strategic intent of China behind the theatre-level incursions in Galwan Valley, north bank of Pangong Tso, Hot Springs, Gogra, Depsang Bulge, Gurung Hill, Requin La in Eastern Ladakh and Naku La in Sikkim?

The second question: Given a theatre-level incursion taking place across the LAC, was there a massive strategic and tactical intelligence failure in detecting such large-scale incursions?

This is especially germane given that in 2013, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) crossed the LAC in Depsang. In 2014, incursions happened in Chumur when Xi Jinping was in Ahmedabad. The Doklam stand-off took place in 2017, and a distinguished Member of Parliament from Arunachal Pradesh, Tapir Gao, belonging to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), flagged repeated Chinese incursions into his state in the Lok Sabha on November 19, 2019, and after that.

A claim that Tapir Gao reiterated to news website Scroll on June 25, 2020, ten days after the Galwan Valley clash which left 20 Indian Army personnel dead and scores more injured. In response to a question, “Can you be more specific about the areas you are referring to?” (Areas where Chinese encroachment in Arunachal Pradesh has taken place) Tapir Gao replied, “Asaphilla [located along the Line of Actual Control in the Upper Subansiri Division]; Andrella Valley, which is to the north of Anini in Dibang Valley; Chaglagam in Anjaw district.”

The third question: Is it true, as articulated by a senior police officer in a paper written for the Conference of Director Generals/Inspector Generals of Police held in Delhi on January 21 and 22, 2023, that India has lost access to 26 out of the 65 Patrolling Points (PPs) on the LAC in Eastern Ladakh?

The officer wrote, “Presently, there are 65 PPs starting from Karakoram pass to Chumur, which are to be patrolled regularly by the ISFs (Indian Security Forces). Out of 65 PPs, our presence is lost in 26 PPs (i.e. PP no. 5-17, 24-32, 37, 51, 52, 62) due to restrictive or no patrolling by the ISFs. Later on, China forces us to accept the fact that as such areas have not seen the presence of ISFs or civilians since long, the Chinese were present in these areas. This leads to a shift in the border under control of ISFs towards the Indian side and a ‘buffer zone’ is created in all such pockets, which ultimately leads to loss of control over these areas by India. This tactic of the PLA to grab land inch-by-inch is known as ‘Salami Slicing’.”

This is perhaps the most damning indictment of the spin the government has been attempting to peddle since April-May 2020, that things are under control. The paper shows facts are otherwise and the PLA's tactics of Salami Slicing—first denying access to the Indian Security Forces and then occupying it themselves—is unfortunately working to India’s detriment.

A regrettable testimonial to this PLA tactic is how ISF patrolling on the north bank of Pangong Tso is now confined to Finger-4 unlike Finger-8 earlier.

The fourth question: What has happened in the 19 rounds of military-to-military talks between the Indian Army and the PLA? The 19th round was held on August 14, 2023.

The fifth question: What has been happening in the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China border affairs (WMCC) since April 2020?

Recall that on September 10, 2020, the Indian External Affairs Minister met with his then-Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Moscow and agreed to a five-point minutiae that inter-alia stated, “The two sides also agreed to continue to have dialogue and communication through the Special Representative mechanism on the India-China boundary question. They also agreed in this context that the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs (WMCC) should also continue its meetings.”

Earlier, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh met his then-Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe in Moscow on September 4, 2020. Mark the location—Moscow. That is where the meetings took place and not in Washington DC, London, Brussels or any other Western capital.

The sixth question: Are all the buffer zones ostensibly created as a consequence of the disengagement process on the Indian side of the LAC?

The seventh question: Due to the creation of these buffer zones, has India lost 2,000 square kilometres of its territory along the LAC? Strategic affairs analyst Sushant Singh had this to say in his piece in the Frontline on February 9, 2023: “This is loss of Indian control over territory in border areas, estimated at around 2,000 square km by Manoj Joshi in his book Understanding the India-China Border: The Enduring Threat of War in High Himalayas.”

The eighth and final question: In FY 2022, India’s trade deficit qua China was $101.02 billion. India’s imports from China in 2022 rose to $118.5 billion from $97.5 billion in 2021, while its exports declined from $28.1 billion in 2021 to $17.48 billion in 2022. Are we, therefore, subsidising China’s aggression on us (India)?

Given the wide divergence between the Indian and Chinese readouts of the meeting between PM Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping in Johannesburg, the questions above and below become even more critical: Disengagement on whose terms, India’s or China’s? Would the status quo ante in April 2020 along the LAC be restored? If the Chinese had not intruded into Indian territory as the government claimed in the all-party meeting post the Galwan incident, what is this disengagement all about? The nation awaits answers to the above questions. Answers that should have been voluntarily forthcoming in the prime minister’s reply to the Lok Sabha on August 10, 2023.

(Views are personal)

Manish Tewari

Lawyer, MP, and former Union minister

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