Ladakh peace deal: Enter the Dragon

India unlearns lessons from Doklam


February 13, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Ladakh peace deal: Enter the Dragon

By agreeing to an unequal pullout & actually ceding significant military advantages, India seems to be walking blindly again into a Chinese trap

Once again amidst lots of noise and bravado, Indian government reaches an agreement with China to end the stalemate along the Pangong Tso lake to its clear detriment. Lessons from an earlier standoff with the Dragon at Doklam seem to have been forgotten in a hurry.

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A satisfactory outcome of any negotiation is when you end up with more than what you had before, or the other party loses more than you do. Maybe it is time that the powers that be in Delhi learnt the art of negotiations again and preferably from the Chinese who seem to best their Indian counterparts time and again.

The latest agreement reached with China in the matter of standoff in Eastern Ladakh, notably Pangong Tso lake through which the Line of Actual Control (LAC) passes is another example of how the Chinese political leadership always ends up with the upper hand, if not exactly what it is seeking in any negotiation with India.

Ending a military standoff between the two nuclear armed nations, both equipped with forces that easily count amongst the largest in the world, is always welcome. Easing of tensions around a border that has historically been ill-defined is nothing to complain about, but what is a matter of concern and has been one for decades as far China and India are concerned, is that over the years India has steadily been losing not just territory, but also often the strategic advantages that it had long enjoyed and which allowed it to keep the Dragon under a check, if not entirely at bay.

This is becoming increasingly evident from the details of the agreement that two militaries reached earlier this week, leading to a pull back of the forces and creating a buffer zone to separate them. However, it is apparent that more than engaging in a negotiation, Delhi has simply agreed to the terms dictated by Beijing, even though the government’s claims are to the contrary.

As has become the norm with the current government, haze, smoke and mirrors are the standard tools it uses when making any delicate announcement where it could be seen even marginally in negative light, the outcome of the 9-month-long standoff with China has been projected as a significant achievement in the multitude of ‘friendly’ media that this government has cultivated since it took charge almost seven years ago.

Slippery fingers

 As per the agreement, both sides have begun to pull back from the stand-off zone, located between ‘Fingers 3 and 4’ on the northern banks of the lake. China will pull its troops on the north bank towards the east of Finger 8, while India will also position its forces at its permanent base near Finger 3 and a similar action will be taken by both the parties in the south bank area as well. The two sides also agreed to make the zone between Fingers 3 and 8 a no-patrolling zone.

On paper and viewed superficially, the agreement seems to be fair and equal as both sides pull back to their respective points of control, broadly. However, as usual trouble becomes evident the moment you scratch beneath the surface.

First is the problem with this no-patrol zone. India claims the LAC lies east of Finger 8, which is over 8 km east of the stand-off zone. This means that finally Indian government accepts that the Chinese had indeed intruded and gained a significant chunk of Indian territory despite vehement claims last year by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his numerous ministers that ‘not an inch’ of Indian land had been encroached upon by the Chinese.

The second and more crucial problem is that by accepting not to patrol its own land, up to slightly west of Finger 3, India has de-facto conceded shifting of the LAC from Finger 8 to Finger 3.

Another big issue with the agreement is India agreeing to vacate heights near the lake which gave it tremendous strategic advantages in case of any future flare-up, which, in any case with the Chinese, is only a matter of time. By giving up the heights, the government has again removed the sole advantage that Indian Army had gained for itself during the standoff.

Chinese incursions for stay: From Arunachal to Doklam

By agreeing to an unequal pullout and actually ceding significant military advantages, India seems to be walking blindly again into a Chinese trap. Numerous examples abound over how China has not respected any deal and restarts its encroachments the moment its adversaries look away.

Barely three years ago there was another standoff between the two sides at Doklam plateau on the trilateral border of India, China and Bhutan. The trouble began when Indian forces stepped in to stop construction of roads in the area that is claimed by Bhutan and contested by China. After 73 days of both the militaries engaged in a staring contest, Delhi and Beijing agreed to withdraw their troops to their original positions and China agreed to stop construction of the roads.

Once again the pact was hailed as a major win for India, by the government’s large army of pet media which said that China had bowed down to Indian leadership. The end of the standoff, announced days before Modi’s visit to China for participating in BRICS Summit, was followed by the usual images bear-hugs and broad smiles of Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

However, China resumed construction barely a few months later and this time, neither India nor Bhutan made any noise about it. As a result, China has now built two major highways right into Doklam, giving it enormous edge in the area and a defacto control over the very territory that had been so hotly defended by India.

Doklam is not the sole example. Last month, there were reports and photographs of an entire Chinese village having been built on Indian territory in Arunachal Pradesh. But it did not even evince any response from either Modi, the defence minister or the Chief Minister of the strategic state. Similarly, there have been reports of Chinese incursions in Sikkim and Uttarakhand.

It is clear that China is testing, in small and measured exercises, the will power of the Indian political leadership to not just start but be able to sustain for long periods any military campaign to defend its territory.

By gaining a clear edge again in Pangong, Jinping has seen that he and the Chinese military can get away with anything as long as it happens away from the glare of media or without causing any public loss of face to Modi, whose only response to any crisis has been hollow bravado, leaving the Indian defence forces to deal with the ruins that his ‘strong leadership’ leaves the Indian strategy in.



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