Disengagement agreement at Pangong Tso Lake – Explained

Recently, a military disengagement agreement signed between India and China. This is the first major breakthrough to resolve the nine-month-long military stand-off along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh. Both the Chinese and Indian troops present on the south and north of Pangong Tso lake already started a “synchronized and organized disengagement”.

Background:

  • Line of Actual Control is the disputed boundary between India and China. LAC is divided into three sectors: western, middle, and eastern.
  • Both countries disagree on the actual location of the LAC. India claims that the LAC is 3,488 km long. But the Chinese believe it is around 2,000 km only.
  • LAC mostly passes on the land, but in Pangong Tso lake, LAC passes through the water as well.
  • The contested area of the lake is divided into 8 Fingers.
  • Chinese contested that the LAC is at finger 4. But, India’s perceived LAC (Line of Actual Control) is at finger 8. This led to frequent disputes in the area. 
  • Previously India patrolled on foot up to Finger 8. But there is no motorable road access from India’s side to the areas east of Finger 4.
  • China on the other hand already built a road on their side and dominated up to Finger 4.

  • The recent (in May 2020) standoff on North and South bank of the lake is one such dispute.
  • During the stand-off, Chinese troops marched to the ridgeline of finger 3 and 4. Indian forces were forced to stay within finger 3. 
  •  But, in August 2020, India obtained some strategic advantages in the region by occupying certain peaks in the Kailash ranges. After that, Indian troops started positioning in Magar Hill, MukhpariGurung Hill, etc. This pressurized China to enter into a negotiation.  
  • Later, India and China finally reached to an agreement on disengagement at Pangong Lake.
  • The agreement was reached in the 9th corps commander meeting held on 24th January 2021.

What are the important points of agreement?

  1. The agreement calls for disengagement along the Pangong Tso region. It includes the pulling of tanks and troops from both sides.
  2. The troops will return to pre standoff position in a gradual manner on the north and south banks of the lake. 
  3. In the north bank, China will pull back to finger 8 and India will get back to its Dhan Singh Thapa post near finger 3. 
  4. The area between finger 3 and 8 will become a no patrolling zone for a temporary period.
  5. All the construction done after April 2020 will be removed by both sides
  6. Negotiation of the agreement through military and diplomatic discussions will take place to decide the patrolling on the area between finger 3 and 8.

What are the reasons leading to the present agreement?

First, India’s strategic advantage and ability to remain strong. China started the standoff in March and soon captured Finger 4 area. Chinese thought that they were in an advantageous position both militarily and strategically as compared to India (As the move coincides with COVID pandemic). China never expected such prolonged opposition from India. But India achieved this, which resulted into the agreement.

Second, there is also a climatic reason for it. The icy-cold winter in Ladakh with temperature as low as minus 20 degrees Celsius forced China for an agreement. Chinese forces are not habituated to such extreme temperature. For example, 10,000 troops from the Western Theatre Command (WTC) had moved to lower locations due to fatigue and other complications in January. 

Third, sensible diplomacy of India. India handled the pressure from China very well. For example, handling the Chinese provoking tactics, India did not turn out aggressive at any point of dispute. All these along with India’s diplomatic will to ban Chinese apps forced China to engage in talks.

Fourth, International Pressure on China. China’s image in the international arena got deteriorated due to various reasons like

    • China’s opaque way of handling COVID outbreak
    • The way China forces its maritime neighbours in the South China Sea.

All these forces along with the standoff deteriorated China’s image. With the nations recovering from COVID pandemic, China wanted to create a positive image (as Chinese manufactured goods need markets). So China agreed to disengagement.

Fifth, New Biden-Harris alliance in the US promised greater stability in the South China Sea region. China cannot afford a conflict on its two fronts (East – South China Sea dispute, West – India – China standoff). So China agreed to return to pre-stand off position.

Concerns with the disengagement agreement: 

First, there is a lack of trust amongst the countries. This restricts them from the attainment of lasting peace in the region. 

Second, Ambiguity with respect to China’s intent. Even the US warned India to remain vigilant in disengagement.

Third, there is still a higher probability of escalation of violence in the region. For example, clashes in Galwan Valley started when the troops were pulling back in June last year.

Fourth, Pangong Tso is just one point of friction.  Focus on other areas is also required. Else the efficacy of this disengagement is also at risk. The other areas include,  

    1. Gogra Post at Patrolling Point 17A (PP17A)  
    2. Hot Springs area near PP15 
    3. PP14 in Galwan Valley 
    4. Depsang Plains, which is close to India’s strategic Daulat Beg Oldie base

According to the present agreement, the discussion on Gogra Post and Hot Springs area will take place 48 hours after the disengagement at Pangong Tso Lake will complete.

Fifth, there is also an accusation on India for getting into agreement despite being in a dominant position. They are,

  1. Prior to the standoff, Finger 4 belonged to Indian territory. But in the agreement, India agreed to move to Finger 3 and not to stay on Finger 4.
  2. Indian troops, after capturing Kailash ranges are now moving back.

But one has to realize following points,

  1. China moving back to Finger 8 after capturing Finger 4. 
  2. Focus on long term solution instead of the short term needs.
  3. Falling behind itself is like a defeat to China considering its military potential. 
  4. The area between finger 3 to finger 8 is currently under negotiation. 

Suggestions to improve the disengagement:

First, The immediate focus should be on the disengagement and gradual withdrawal in the entire region along with the proper implementation of Pangong Tso disengagement agreement. 

Second, Both countries can reach a diplomatic solution like the creation of buffer zones or demilitarized zone in disputed areas. As the next step of the solution, they can also create further improvements. Such as Neither side will deploy/patrol/develop infrastructure in the buffer zone or permitting joint patrolling of troops.

Third, Both the countries should sign an agreement to resolve the conflict in the long run by,

  1. Accepting and respecting the LAC by both the parties.
  2. Neither party should attempt to change the status quo unilaterally.
  3. Both parties should adhere to all the agreements.

Despite the Chinese agreement India always has to remain cautious of earlier Chinese aggressions such as non-adherence to the principles, frequent violation in the region, creating infrastructure in disputed areas, etc. Once the disengagement is done India will have to keep the momentum and move ahead to resolve all the boundary conflicts. That is the only solution beneficial for both the countries.

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