Nothing is deemed to be done till words have translated into deeds. This is the vertebrae of the cold war principle of trust, but verify. The outcome of the low-expectation dialogue of foreign ministers of India and China, S. Jaishankar and Wang Yi, from the five-point agreement in Moscow on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), is neither breakdown nor breakthrough. Simply put, it is old wine in new bottle.
Still, for the first time, neither country has blamed the other for the tensions on the border which had become standard practice. It is also the first time there was a joint statement instead of customary separate ones, but each side issued a supplementary note.
What was conspicuously missing from the joint statement was RSQA – restoration of status quo ante. Think of it. RSQA has never appeared in any of the Chinese statements in the past. The Chinese have repeatedly mentioned ‘restoration of peace and tranquility in border area’. The word LAC is also not used.
The Indian statements have also not used RSQA probably due to deference to Chinese sensitivities. But RSQA has figured frequently outside the formal Indian statements.
Similarly, Depsang where the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has made the deepest incursion and is the most strategic ingress is not covered by the DDP – disengagement and de-escalation process – which has revived in military lexicon, the terms buffer zones and friction points.
Pre-empting the PLA’s attempts at what it has done on the north bank of Pangong Lake on the south bank, Indian elite troops from Special Frontier Force consisting of exiled Tibetans occupied the commanding heights on the ridgeline of Kailash Range overlooking Chinese Moldo garrison, including tactical heights point 5167, Bump, Magar Hill, Gurung Hill, Mukhpari, Rezang La and Rechin La stretching almost 30 kilometre.
Rattled by this bold pre-emptive forward deployment similar to their own multiple intrusions in April-May, the PLA has deftly created a friction point by occupying a plateau opposite Mukhpari about 500 metres (m) away and 100 m lower than that. It is here that 40 to 50 PLA soldiers, armed with rods, spears and firearms, fired shots, sparring Indian soldiers into a Galwan-like clash.
After the PLA fired in the air, Indians reciprocated and did not allow the PLA to close in.
A friction point was manufactured a few days prior to the Moscow talks by the PLA so that the tactically significant Mukhpari and other heights could be included in the DDP when Corps Commanders resume their sixth round of talks later this week. The last round was held on August 2.
Incidentally it is now being reported by government sources that between 29 and 31 August, Helmet and Black Top – both on or close to Kailash ridge and on Chinese side of LAC – which were reported to having been occupied by Indian troops are in fact not in their possession, and are probably occupied by the PLA which gives them a foothold on these commanding heights.
In brief, the five-point joint agreement calls for quick disengagement to ease tension, avoiding escalatory action, abiding by existing border protocols and continuing dialogue at all levels including special representatives and instituting new confidence building measures (CBMs).
Engaging through diplomatic channels
Some escalation has already taken place: the Galwan clash which resulted in casualties and the prophylactic firing by both sides near Kailash ridge, both events occurring for the first time in 45 years.
Each side made separate comments and statements after the agreement accompanied by vicious reports by China’s Global Times, reflecting deep differences and, especially, the demolition of trust.
At a press conference along with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, Wang said: “As for relations between China-India, the whole world follows the development…most important is to avoid new violations of the obligations of the border”.
More importantly, he added: “We are ready to take conciliatory steps. Troops and equipment should be withdrawn from the Line of Actual Control.” He also noted that strategic guidance from Indian and China leaders suggested that India and China were not competitive rivals or threat to each other.
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