While it can be construed as a positive development, one cannot realistically raise three cheers at Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s announcement in Parliament that a breakthrough has been achieved at the India-China border after a nine-month standoff between the Indian Army and the Chinese PLA. As stated by Singh, India and China have reached an agreement on disengagement in the north and south bank of Pangong Tso in Eastern Ladakh that mandates both sides to cease forward deployment of troops in a ‘phased, coordinated and verifiable’ manner. It may be recalled that throughout the first half of 2020, sporadic clashes at various places on the Line of Actual Control had occurred, the most serious being the tragic confrontation at the Galwan Valley on June 15, when 20 Indian Army personnel were killed. Despite frantic efforts on both sides to diffuse tensions, the situation had taken a graver turn, with China alleging that Indian troops on September 7 violated a bilateral agreement and fired warning shots during a confrontation on the border near the south bank of Pangong Tso. India had denied these allegations, asserting that at no stage has the Indian Army transgressed across the LAC or resorted to using aggressive means, and instead accused China of continuing to undertake provocative activities, including setting up a chain of villages in the eastern sector in areas controlled by it.
Given the heightened tensions throughout last year, any indication that the contending parties are backing off from eyeball to eyeball confrontation is, no doubt, to be welcomed. The Defence Minister has said that the implementation of the pact will restore the situation to the one which existed prior to May 5, 2020, adding that the two sides have agreed they should achieve complete disengagement at the ‘earliest’ and abide fully by the bilateral agreements and protocol. Apparently, both sides have agreed to remove structures that had been built since April last in the north and south bank areas of the lake, and put in place a temporary moratorium on military activities. Under this agreement the PLA will keep its troops in the north bank area to the east of Finger 8 and the Indian troops will be based at their permanent base at Dhan Singh Thapa Post near Finger 3 in the Pangong lake areas. However, clashes, backing offs and peace agreements are nothing new; in fact, since the 1960s, the India-China border has seen a litany of confrontations and truces, each being of a transient nature and lasting only till the next, inevitable clash! The suspicion, therefore, is understandably rife that the Chinese in particular would keep the border issue volatile to serve their objectives. The only means of terminating this litany is to work out a permanent solution to the border issue, something easier said than done.