Cautious optimism as India, China agree to ease border tensions

Foreign ministers of the nuclear-armed Asian rivals agree for troops disengagement after months-long standoff.

Pangong Lake in Ladakh, India, 22 June 2019 [File:Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]
India has accused China of entering territory near Pangong Tso Lake that it has historically claimed [File: Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Leh, Ladakh – In the Himalayan city of Leh – the capital of India’s newly created union territory Ladakh, located 11,500 feet (3,505 metres) above sea level – people have been worried at the prospect of war. The months-long border standoff between India and China, coupled with coronavirus restrictions, has already affected the busy tourist season, wiping out the much-needed income in the region.

Thousands of troops from the Asian giants have been locked in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation, particularly in Ladakh region since minor skirmishes were reported in late April.

However, in a big relief for the people here, the shadow of war seems to have ended for now after foreign ministers of nuclear-armed rivals late on Friday announced their troops must disengage and take steps to restore “peace and tranquillity” at the disputed border.

“The two Foreign Ministers agreed that the current situation in the border areas is not in the interest of either side. They agreed therefore that the border troops of both sides should continue their dialogue, quickly disengage, maintain proper distance and ease tensions,” a joint statement by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Indian counterpart Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said.

“Lessening of tensions is a good thing,” Chering Dorjay Lakrook, a former leader from the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), told Al Jazeera.

But Lakrook is still cautiously optimistic because he says China cannot be trusted.

Ladakh story
An aerial view of Leh town [Bilal Kuchay/Al Jazeera]

“They [Chinese] are buying time to fortify their position. This deal is a mere eyewash until the Chinese go back to the April 2020 positions,” he said referring to the alleged Chinese transgression into Indian territory that began in early May.

“There is no mention of the status quo ante and if things go like this and the Chinese are not going back to their original positions then what is this point of such a deal.”

The Indian defence analysts Al Jazeera spoke to echoed similar concerns pointing to previous agreements reached during military-level talks that failed to de-escalate the most serious border tensions in nearly 50 years.

The two countries have resorted to an enormous troops build-up along their de facto border, known as Line of Actual Control (LAC), since June 15 when 20 Indian soldiers were killed in Ladakh’s Galwan Valley in hand-to-hand fighting involving clubs and rocks.

China is also reported to have suffered an unspecified number of casualties, but it did not make it public.
The deadly June clashes – the worst since the 1962 war – caused a backlash in India, forcing the government to ban dozens of Chinese apps, including wildly popular TikTok, and put a curb on investment from China.

The heightened tensions may affect the bilateral annual trade that stands at $92bn.

Several rounds of military and diplomatic talks achieved little success in ending the renewed tensions, with the two nations accusing each other of military confrontations in the past couple of weeks.

The recent tensions erupted on August 29, when the Indian Army said it thwarted a “provocative action” by the Chinese soldiers to change the status quo at the southern bank of Pangong Tso Lake. Two days later, the Chinese government accused the Indian side of crossing the LAC.

On September 7, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) accused the Indian Army of firing warning shots – a charge denied by the Indian side.

Ladakh story
A desolate look of otherwise busy Leh market [Bilal Kuchay/Al Jazeera]

New Delhi had demanded the restoration of status quo ante, but the five-point deal agreed at the high-level diplomatic meeting in Moscow on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meeting on Friday, experts and opposition party in India say, failed to mention it.

Pravin Sawhney, a veteran defence analyst, welcomed the Moscow agreement, adding that “this will lead to major easing of tension between the two sides”.

But he said the issue of Chinese transgression into the territory was not mentioned in the agreement. “Chinese have already got what they wanted. They are already sitting inside the Indian territory and they will not leave the occupied territory. Which means the status quo ante of April 2020 that India was talking about will not happen,” he told Al Jazeera.

“The only thing that will happen is disengagement to avoid war,” Sawhney, the editor of Force magazine, told Al Jazeera.

Opposition Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi attacked the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeting, “The Chinese have taken our land. When exactly is GOI [Government of India] planning to get it back?”

Einar Tangen, a Chinese expert based in Beijing, also welcomed the diplomatic breakthrough, saying “this is a beginning, but the devil is in the details.”

“Given the trust deficit, it was time that this matter was handled by diplomats, who think of the larger picture, rather than generals who think about strategic advantage,” Tangen told Al Jazeera.

“At this point, rather than trying to point fingers and assign blame … it is time both countries concentrated on the serious health and economic issues in front of them.”

Experts believe a combination of factors may have contributed to the long and tense situation between the Asian giants across their 3,500km-long (2,175 miles) contested border, which stretches from Ladakh to the eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh.

“Nationalistic governments in both countries, an increasingly muscular and aggressive Chinese foreign policy, and an Indian move in Kashmir strongly opposed by Beijing are some of the factors responsible for the recent flare-up,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director and senior associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Beijing had condemned New Delhi’s decision in August 2019 to strip Indian-administered Kashmir’s limited autonomy and breaking the region into two federally administered territories – Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh – the site of the border confrontation.

“In effect, there are unique factors at play that make this a crisis about a lot more than simple border provocations.”

Former General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Indian Army’s Northern Command Deependra Singh Hooda told Al Jazeera that the border standoff is not a “localised incident” but “approved at the highest levels” in the Chinese government.

“They [China] are doing it everywhere and this is not only India. Be it South China Sea, Australia, European Union, Hong Kong, Taiwan. I think the Chinese are trying to show they are a strong power to reckon with.”

However, Beijing-based political commentator and analyst Tangen disagrees.

“The Chinese see an increasingly nationalistic India, whose actions – Kashmir, hostile statements by Indian government ministers, intensified military infrastructure on the border, participation in the Quad, trade blacklists etc … as hostile,” he told Al Jazeera.

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, also known as Quad, is a security grouping consisting of the United States, Australia, Japan and India.

Tangen blames the US for pitting the two Asian giants against each other. “The conflict has taken on the veneer of a colonial, where the US, fearing a growing Asian Century, is seeking to put Asia’s two most populist countries against each other.”

Sawhney, the defence analyst, believes the confrontation was a result of India’s Kashmir decision and showing Chinese-controlled territory of Aksai Chin, which India claims as its own, in its maps.

Al Jazeera reached out to BJP spokesman Nalin Kohli, who refused to comment on the issue.

The two most populous countries have had a long-standing border dispute. They went to war in 1962 over Arunachal Pradesh state in the northeast, where China claims about 90,000 square kilometres (34,750 square miles). China calls it South Tibet.

In 2017, they came face-to-face in Doklam area – a long-pending border tussle between China and Bhutan, after the Indian Army sent troops to stop China from constructing a road there.

Back in Ladakh, a region home to 274,000 people, normal life has been disrupted due to the military standoff.

Konchock Stanzin, executive councillor for the Chushul constituency in the Leh Autonomous Hill Development Council and a BJP leader, told Al Jazeera: “We hope the situation gets sorted soon otherwise it will have a huge impact on our lives – people won’t be able to take their cattle for grazing to the upper reaches; our economy which is dependent on tourism will be hit very hard.”

Source: Al Jazeera