If you believed Beijing, it would seem as if most concerns between India and China have been resolved. This despite that fact that soldiers died in June in the first fatal clashes between the two nations in four decades.
“The front-line frontier defence forces of the two countries have disengaged in most locations, and the current situation continues to develop in the direction of easing and cooling,” said China’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Wang Wenbin on July 28.
Reports on the actual situation at the disputed border, as well as the Indian Army’s preparations for the months ahead, offer a more frank picture. Even as headlines in India focus on the inauguration of the Ram temple, the facts suggest that nearly three months after the first tensions along the disputed India-China border, Beijing is unwilling to return to the previous status quo and remains in possession of land that Indian troops used to patrol.
‘Disengagement not completed’
“There has been some progress made towards this objective but the disengagement process has as yet not been completed,” said India’s External Affairs Ministry in a statement on July 30. “The Senior Commanders of the two sides will be meeting in the near future to work out steps in this regard.”
As per the Indian Express, troops on both sides have fully disengaged from points in the Hot Springs are and the Galwan Valley of Eastern Ladakh, after scuffles and violence beginning May 5. The Galwan Valley site was the location of the fatal conflict on June 15 that left 20 Indian soldiers dead, with Beijing not having revealed how many of its troops were killed.
But the armies remain in a face-off at Patrolling Point 17A in the Gogra Post sector and along the Pangong Tso, where Chinese troops are occupying territory that Indian soldiers used to patrol.
The north shore of Pangong lake features a number of spits of land referred to as ‘fingers’. India’s claim for the location of the Line of Actual Control – what it asserts is the current, disputed border – lies near Finger 8, and Indian soldiers have been patrolling up to there for years now.
But, according to News18’s Praveen Swami, despite the talk of disengagement, Chinese troops remain entrenched at Finger 4, near a location called Green Top, which offers a view of the Indian Army’s logistics hub around the Pangong lake.
“India claims the LAC runs near Finger 8, west of China’s forward bases at Sirijap, and has long despatched patrols to the area,” Swami wrote. “This summer, though, the PLA dug in at Finger 4 –where Green Top is located – obstructing Indian patrols from moving westwards. Force levels have thinned significantly all the way to Finger 5, government sources say, but the PLA has continued to maintain its presence at Green Top.”
Moreover, Chinese troops are also preventing Indian soldiers from accessing a number of their patrolling points in the strategically important Depsang Plains, by blocking off the bottleneck or “Y-junction” in the area.
A fifth meeting between Corps Commanders of both sides on August 2, which continued for 10 hours, did not seem to achieve much.
“The overall mood in the Indian security establishment remains grim,” wrote Rajat Pandit in the Times of India. “With even disengagement yet to fully take place at two of the four immediate face-off sites, the de-escalation and de-induction of troops from other sectors, including the strategically-located Depsang-Daulat Beg Oldie, simply does not figure on the horizon as of now.”
China’s ambassador to India, Sun Weidong, said in a webinar two days after the most recent military talks that, as far as Pangong lake was concerned, “China’s traditional customary boundary line is in accordance with the LAC.”
That statement has led many to conclude that little actual movement is now expected from Indian and Chinese positions on the border. This, for example, was the conclusion drawn by former Indian Army Chief Ved Malik.
As a result, the Indian Army is preparing to support more than 30,000 “forward-deployed troops” in eastern Ladakh over the winter, according to the Times of India.
New Delhi has also been making several other moves – banning more Chinese apps, reviewing agreements for Chinese-funded Confucius Institutes, preventing neighbouring countries from joining commercial coal auctions and public procurement.
India has also received support from the US, with Washington, DC considering banning the Chinese app TikTok – a move that New Delhi already carried out – and speaking up against Beijing’s expansionism.
“I think the actions are entirely consistent with what [China has] been signalling to the world for decades you might even argue since 1989 but certainly since General Secretary Xi [Jinping] came to power,” said US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to a US Congress panel on July 31. “They talk about bringing socialism with Chinese characteristics to the world. Claims that they have now made for real estate in Bhutan, the incursion that took place in India, these are indicative of Chinese intentions, and they are testing, they are probing the world to see if we are going to stand up to their threats and their bullying.”