SynopsisIndia will continue building its border infrastructure, which in bolstering its capacity to resist future Chinese incursions, will be seen as a constant provocation by China. India-US relations will grow, the Quad and the Indo-Pacific concept will progress, requiring a strategic response from China.
If the Chinese gave five different explanations for why they moved into Ladakh, there could be several reasons for their withdrawal, partial for the moment, with complete disengagement across the front unlikely to happen quickly enough, judging by how the last round of military talks went and foreign minister Wang Yi’s latest enunciation of China’s standard line that the border issue is one left from history and should not be placed at the front and centre of ties but at a “proper place” in the overall relationship.
Why a solution cannot be a historical step forward is always skirted. Wang Yi self-servingly indicates that for China a solution is not a priority, it is linked to other elements in the overall relationship, which means it is a lever for Indian concessions in other areas, especially the access to the Indian economy. This is contrary to external affairs minister S Jaishankar’s repeated affirmations that the rest of the relationship is dependent on maintaining peace and tranquillity on the border.
China should have hopefully learned durable lessons from its failed attempt to unilaterally impose its version of the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Its belief that forcing winter deployments on us on icy heights, imposing a massive supplies burden and economic costs might make India more amenable proved wrong.
China’s decision to withdraw in mid-winter has exposed its confused Ladakh strategy. Its bid to intimidate India and get its way without fighting having failed, it opted for a pragmatic retreat. China could have been sensitive to the beating its international image has taken with its aggression against India added to the list of its growing belligerent acts. America’s open diplomatic and security-related support for India and its push for strengthening Quad risked raising the costs for China. The hope that the Biden administration would respond to China’s overtures for a renewed dialogue and move away from Trump’s policies, and in doing so discomfit India, was belied. In fact the latest Interim National Security Strategy Guidance issued by the Biden administration targets China unsparingly, and now a Quad virtual summit is slated to take place.
Most importantly, with the CCP’s centenary on July 1, President Xi has prudently decided to retreat now and have time to contain any internal political backlash against him in party circles, as closer to that date managing this would have become more difficult. Videos of retreat of Chinese soldiers, tanks, destruction of fortifications etc have dented the PLA’s “invincible” image. Ladakh has been a major strategic defeat for China. For the first time, China has withdrawn from its own “sovereign” territory under external military pressure, in striking contrast with its conduct in the South China Sea.
The future remains uncertain. India will continue building its border infrastructure, which in bolstering its capacity to resist future Chinese incursions, will be seen as a constant provocation by China. India-US relations will grow, the Quad and the Indo-Pacific concept will progress, requiring a strategic response from China. A fallout of the LAC disengagement is the LoC ceasefire. China’s military climbdown in Ladakh could have induced Pakistan, nervous about an emboldened India having a freer hand to hit it harder for LoC violations, to propose a ceasefire, rightly accepted by us to reduce suffering of the civilian population on our side.
The DGMO’s agreement does not, as some are speculating, mean resuming dialogue. Issues of Pakistan ending terrorism remain and Kashmir has become nonnegotiable. A prodding US role in the ceasefire is being conjured up by pro-Pakistani lobbies to suggest American pressure on India.
(The writer is former foreign secretary)