India-China Disengagement — Explained

The disengagement doesn’t restore the pre-May status quo. It forces both India and China to pull back from the clash site, which India had been patrolling till tensions cropped up

After weeks of tensions, India and China have decided to disengage from the conflict zone in the Galwan Valley following talks between National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and China’s State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Pro-government sections in the Indian media have already claimed victory. For example, Jyoti Malhotra, a veteran foreign policy writer, wrote in The Print that the last 24 hours “have truly been Narendra Modi’s”. Let’s take a closer look at the disengagement.

Neither side has issued details of the disengagement process. After the Doval-Wang talks, both sides issued two separate statements. The MEA statement claimed that both India and China agreed they “should complete the ongoing disengagement process along the LAC expeditiously” and “ensure a phased and step-wise deescalation in the India-China border areas”. It added that both “should strictly respect and observe the LAC and should not take any unilateral action to alter the status quo and work together to avoid any incident in the future that could disturb peace and tranquillity in border areas.”

Terms of the pull-back

In the statement issued by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, there is not reference to the LAC. Rather, China has emphasised the importance of bilateral strategic ties and economic development, and reasserted its claim, indirectly though, over the entire Galwan Valley. “The right and wrong of what recently happened at the Galwan Valley in the western sector of the China-India boundary is very clear. China will continue firmly safeguarding our territorial sovereignty as well as peace and tranquillity in the border areas,” Wang told Doval, according to the statement issued by the MFA. But the Chinese side has confirmed the disengagement process. Towards the end, the statement read: “Both sides welcomed the progress achieved in the recent military and diplomatic meetings, agreed to stay in dialogue and consultation, and stressed the importance to promptly act on the consensus reached in the commander-level talks between Chinese and Indian border troops, and complete disengagement of the front-line troops as soon as possible.”

So an unapologetic China has practically reasserted its claim over the Galwan Valley but has confirmed disengagement. So the next question is what are the terms of the disengagement? As we said earlier, there are no officially released details. But Indian media have reported widely that the Chinese side is pulling back some 1.8 km from the clash site in the Galwan Valley (the Y-Junction of the Galwan River, where the Patrol Point 14 is situated). All these reports are attributed to “senior officials” in the security establishment (read Doval’s office). If China is actually pulling back, why the MEA or the Army is not issuing a public statement disclosing the details?

New status quo

There’s a knot in the process. To force the Chinese to pull back, India has made a compromise, according to the same “senior officials”. India has agreed to pull back from the clash site at Patrol Point 14. A senior official said India has agreed to establish a 30-day moratorium on foot-patrolling at PP-14. Keep in mind that this was an area India had always patrolled, till tensions cropped up in May. Now this strategically important area would be out of bounds for the Indian army. And if India fails to reach a long-term agreement, it risks losing patrolling at PP 14, from where India can observe Chinese positions along the Galwan River valley on the Chinese side.

This is not status quo ante. China has succeeded in changing the status quo on the Galwan Valley even when it was withdrawing from India’s territories. India has been pushed back from the territories it controlled and patrolled as part of a compromise. The territories India controlled till May has now been turned into a buffer zone, while China has extended its claim line further westward till the banks of Shyok River.

This is not over yet.

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