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SOURCE: Lt Gen DS HoodaLt Gen Rakesh Sharma / INDIA TODAY

The gridlock in eastern Ladakh is total, and the border crisis between India and China seems to have hit a cul-de-sac. In analysing the current situation, four critical issues merit attention. To begin with, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has not vacated its areas of intrusions in eastern Ladakh despite the protracted parleys.

There is intransigence in the PLA’s attitude, as evident in the latest round of talks held after the foreign ministers had arrived at a consensus to “quickly disengage”. In the absence of any breakthrough in the negotiations, the PLA will make their positions permanent, thereby completing the unilateral alteration to the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

Then, there is a clear failure of the existing agreements, protocols and confidence-building measures. A weakening of the agreements was visible in the past few years, with recurring brawls between soldiers of the two sides. It is now unlikely that either side can depend on these agreements to bring peace and tranquility along the border.

There have also been several transg­ressions in the past four months, a brutal clash that led to the death of CO 16 Bihar and 19 soldiers, and firing along the LAC. This has led to severe erosion of trust, especially among the rank and file of the Indian Army, and rules of engagement have been adopted that permit the carrying and use of weapons in defence of territory. In the last week of August, heights astride the Spanggur Gap were occupied by Indian Army troops. This has apparently caused consternation in the PLA, and troops are now face to face in this area. Though our soldiers have exercised tremendous fire control, escalation is always a possibility.

Most worrying is the large induction of military forces in eastern Ladakh from both sides, and the underlying threat of conventional war. It is apparent that neither China nor India want war and will do their best to avoid it. However, mutual suspicion, a lack of progress in the talks and the jockeying for superior tactical positions could spark a local incident that could spiral out of control. There is also the associated issue of logistics management during the forthcoming winter. The Indian Army is well experienced in super/ high altitudes and has its warfighting plans ready, but supporting additional troops that have been inducted is a massive effort that is currently under way. For the PLA, the challenges would be more significant as winter in Ladakh in relative discomfort may be a first for many soldiers.

A crucial question facing both countries is how to move forward to break the current deadlock. Our current approach to resolving the standoff is based on a process of disengagement and a return to status quo ante, follo­wed by de-escalation in which additi­onal forces inducted return to their permanent locations. As the situation eases, new confidence-building measures will be concluded to maintain and enhance peace and tranquility. This seems entirely logical, except that the very first action of disengagement remains stalled, impeding the overall process. To find a way around the impasse, both countries could perhaps look at a different approach to our diplomatic and military negotiations. We suggest a five-step approach, three to resolve the current crisis and two for a long-term resolution:

First, we must build on the common understanding in both India and China that a war (even a limited one) is to be avoided. To credibly remove the threat of war, the first step is to commence de-escalation, which is the demobilisation of forces to levels that minimise the likelihood of even a limited conventional war. Keeping in view the difficulties of sustaining large forces through the winter, we feel that this proposal could find favour in both countries. Obviously, we must be conscious that Ladakh has serious infrastructural issues in winter, and to reposition forces in a crisis could be problematic. The issue of the level of reserves to be retained for the winter will need concerted deliberation by both sides. Still, a significant number of troops could be mutually demobilised to their permanent locations. Such a first step would put to rest the likelihood of the situation spiralling out of control towards war, and incentivise further negotiations.

Second, after the agreement on demobilisation, both sides must begin talks on confidence-building measures aimed at reducing the trust deficit and peaceful management of areas that are considered ‘disputed’ along the LAC. There could be many models, and we are suggesting one such model. There should be a common listing of areas prone to skirmishes due to differing perceptions of the LAC, like Pangong Tso North Bank, Depsang, Demchok and Chumar in Ladakh, and similar areas in the central and eastern sectors. In such areas, patrolling patterns could be mutually accepted. These could range from a complete moratorium on patrolling to a specified schedule of patrolling up to respective LACs, with due intimation to the other side on the hotline to avoid clashes. Verifiable processes must be put in place to ensure that there is no breach in protocol, like using electronic equipment, cameras, observation posts, etc. Such an arrangement exists at the Karakoram Pass patrolled by both sides, and that has cameras to monitor any infringement.

Third, the disengagement process that follows will be based on the principles of confidence-building measures agreed to by both sides. As they are specifically focused on ‘disputed’ areas like Pangong Tso and Depsang, troops would relocate. Since the relocation is on mutually accepted protocols, both sides can claim victory when the disengagement occurs. These protocols, binding all along the LAC, would also prevent future flashpoints from occurring.

The remaining steps look at long-term resolution by addressing the delineation of the LAC and a final settlement of the border dispute. It is apparent that the previous three decades of concerted efforts, even to find a method to commence delineation, have had limited success. An undefined LAC carries the risk of escalation and a breakdown of confidence-building measures. In case China remains adamant, we must create public opinion, in India and globally, and unilaterally commence the process of marking the LAC on our public maps, starting with areas where there are no differences in perception of the two sides. This could put some pressure on China not to continuously shift the goal post on the LAC.

Finally, it is well understood that the boundary settlement is a complex issue and will require some give and take by both sides. China has settled its borders with most countries on this principle, as has India in its boundary agreement with Bangladesh. This issue will require mobilising national and political consensus.

There could be some differences of opinion on the process that has been suggested. By starting with de-escalation, India could be easing the pressure that has been put on China. After the demobilisation of forces, the PLA could stall the subsequent steps and continue to hold on to their current positions. Considering the recent Chinese actions and the high mistrust levels, it would be difficult to dismiss this viewpoint completely. However, our firm stance on the LAC transgressions is not based only on its military posture.

India has already stated that it is ready for a long haul along the border. The Indian military forces are well geared and prepared for escalation to conventional war. The government has also taken economic and diplomatic steps to pressure China and clearly conveyed that the current crisis will impact bilateral relations. However, an extended period in which thousands of soldiers remain deployed along the LAC raises the risk of escalation to a state that neither country wants. Perhaps a new approach to negotiations could help both countries avoid unintended consequences.