With official talks getting under way over the weekend, the month-long stand-off between Indian and Chinese soldiers along the LAC in Ladakh and Sikkim has entered a more considered phase. There was little expectation that the videoconference on Friday, held between External Affairs Ministry officials in Delhi and their Ministry of Foreign Affairs counterparts in Beijing, and talks between the Leh Corps Commander with the South Xinjiang Military Region Commander, held in the Chushul-Moldo region on China’s side of the LAC on Saturday, would bear fruit immediately. However, statements from both sides that the talks will continue indicate a desire to resolve the situation. The MEA and the MFA have also reiterated their commitment to abide by agreements between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping, which came after the last big stand-off, at Doklam in 2017, to not allow “differences to escalate into disputes”. During the Doklam incident, even after a meeting between the leaders on the sidelines of a G-20 summit, it had taken several high-level engagements to ensure a drawdown to the 73-day stand-off.
Given the differences between the situation now and previous incidents, it would be naive to assume that this stand-off can be resolved quickly through talks. The stand-off is at more than one location, including the Finger areas of the Pangong Tso, Galwan Valley and Gogra post in Ladakh and the Naku La pass in Sikkim, and it will require careful study to decide how to de-induct soldiers. Furthermore, a “status quo ante” will require that Chinese soldiers vacate areas where they have dug in for weeks now. Nothing short of their full withdrawal should satisfy India, which means that more than talks on the ground and by diplomats, there is a need for strong political direction from Beijing to the PLA to do that. Otherwise, India must prepare for a long-drawn stand-off, and manoeuvres aimed at ensuring China’s pull back. In addition, even as the government tries to analyse the reasons for China’s aggressive action, it must introspect on signals it misread and warnings that went unheeded across its strategic command. If such skirmishes normally follow the melting of snowlines, for example, then why was the LAC not adequately manned in April-May? Serious notice should have been taken of China’s protests on the redrawing of the Jammu-Kashmir and Ladakh maps, as well as the impact of the Home Minister’s vow in Parliament to “take back” Aksai Chin. The Defence Minister has said that Chinese troops arrived in “heavy numbers” and therefore the government must also study what intelligence was received ahead of such movement, and when action was taken upon it. Finally, why has the stand-off emerged at all, after the intense summit-level conversations in Wuhan and Mamallapuram to discuss building trust at the LAC? Given the government’s silence on events thus far, it is unlikely that it will put out answers to these questions publicly, but in any event, they must be sought.