How India Changed the Playbook and took China by Surprise

India-China Disengagement
By Thursday, PLA had withdrawn more 200 main battle tanks from the south banks of Pangong Tso. (ANI Photo )

NEW DELHI: The process of disengagement between Indian and Chinese armies that began on Wednesday on both sides of Pangong Tso is only the first step. What began with initial talks in June 2020 took over eight months, violence, deaths, missteps to get this far. Mistrust between the two sides is so deep that every step of disengagement will have to be verified.

Defence minister Rajnath Singh said to parliament on Thursday, “It will substantially restore the situation to that existing prior to commencement of the standoff last year.”

Sources in the government said the sustained dialogue between India and China had three main features — first, diplomatic and defence establishments worked together to get to this point.

While the military commanders held nine rounds of talks at the friction points, MEA led the diplomatic engagement with joint secretary Naveen Srivastava conducting the WMCC talks under the watchful eye of the foreign minister S. Jaishankar.

Second, sources said they were not “hustled” to get to an outcome. “Play it cool and play it long, was our guidance. We did not make the oncoming winter an artificial deadline.”

This led to unending rounds of talks, which were offline. Online, the messaging was consistent. Jaishankar led this effort, using every occasion to state that peace and tranquillity on the border was essential for the entire relationship; China had not given a convincing explanation for its actions in the spring of 2020; existing agreements should be adhered to in letter and spirit.

“Any expectation that they can be brushed aside, and that life can carry on undisturbed despite the situation at the border, that is simply not realistic,” he told the Institute of Chinese Studies recently. The Chinese foreign ministry snapped back that the two could not be equated, but India has not budged from that position.

Separately, this time, India showed it was willing to wreck the bilateral relationship by taking tough measures against Chinese economic and commercial interests in India. Many of the steps taken will be irreversible, certainly in the area of telecommunications, FDI restrictions, etc.

In the strategic sphere, India turned decisively away to embrace the Indo-Pacific and Quad, including making Australia a part of the Malabar exercises. As one senior functionary put it, “We wanted Beijing to ask itself, ‘who lost India?’”

The third aspect was keeping up military pressure on the Chinese. With an unprecedented counter-deployment at the LAC in eastern Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh, the Indian signals were clear.

The violence in Galwan Valley on June 15 was a tragedy for India, having lost 20 men, but turned out to be a shock for the Chinese side.

A report by Russian official news agency TASS this week pegged the Chinese losses to 45 men in that particular bout. But it was India’s counter-moves in August-September 2020 that served as an important tactical advantage that India could leverage successfully in the negotiations.

Sources said that after the current round of disengagement is verified and complete, the two sides will begin discussions on PP-15 and Gogra-Hot Springs. The next round of discussions will include the Depsang plains, where Chinese have prevented Indians from patrolling.

To the question, why now, many observers point to the new Biden administration in Washington.

A more accommodative stance of China by the new US administration may have impelled the Chinese to keep the standoff going on. But it's clear now that Biden will take an equally tough approach to China.

That may have tilted the balance for Beijing to finally settle this particular border confrontation.

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