The joint announcement of Foreign Minister S Jaishankar and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Moscow on September 10 – helped by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov – is like a straw for drowning men to clutch. The three foreign ministers were there for the Russia, India and China meeting. In case we have forgotten, Russia-India-China is a trilateral geopolitical group formed to balance growing United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization unilateralism.

The operative part of the joint statement is that the military commander-level talks between India and China will continue. The talks are ongoing and do not preclude jockeying and jostling for better positions on the field to assert each sides Lines of Actual Control. The huge sigh of relief may be premature for talks do not mean a solution. Right now it only means a postponement of armed conflict.

We have two outstanding issues between India and China. The larger one is about large tracts of territory in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh. These two territorial disputes are not going to be resolved even in the foreseeable long term. Hence, Deng Xiaoping sagaciously suggested to Rajiv Gandhi in their 1988 meeting at Beijing that it is best left to history. A hundred years ago, the situations in both countries and their frontiers were very different. What they will be after another hundred years can be anybody’s guess?

The two LACs

The urgent and pressing dispute on hand is the issue of the two LACs. These LACs frequently overlap. The term LAC was first used by then Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai in November 1959 when he wrote to his Indian counterpart Jawaharlal Nehru defining it as “the so-called McMahon Line in the east and the line up to which each side exercises actual control in the west”. Nehru rejected this line even after the events of 1962.

By this time, he was also saddled with a parliamentary resolution pledging to recover all territories occupied by China. Curiously, this LAC did not change very much even after 1962. Zhou even said it was “basically still the line of actual control as existed between the Chinese and Indian sides on November 7, 1959”.

“To put it concretely, in the eastern sector it coincides in the main with the so-called McMahon Line, and in the western and middle sectors it coincides in the main with the traditional customary line which has consistently been pointed out by China,” he said.

The problem is that India and China never agreed on where the LAC was in the Ladakh and middle sectors. The perceptions of what each side “controlled” varied, by a few meters to tens of kilometres. For instance, in the Sikkim sector where they vary at a few places, the actual overlap often is a few meters. This variation is because both sides are vying for better tactical positions to locate their bunkers and sangars or small built-up structures on higher ground to observe the other side.

In a place like the Depsang plains, the western side of which is with India and the eastern side is with China, the overlap of the LACs is by as much as 20 km to 30 km.

This handout satellite image taken on June 16 and release by 2020 Planet Labs, Inc. shows Galwan Valley.

Depsang is what separates the northern-most Indian outpost from China’s strategic Tibet-Xinjiang highway cutting across Aksai Chin. It lies in the crook of the elbow the makes before it joins the Shyok river.

Daulat Beg Oldie overlooks the Chip Chap river as it curls southward to its rendezvous with the Shyok. The entire Chip Chap river was accepted by China as Indian territory even in 1956, but by 1960 China advanced its LAC to about four kilometres of Daulat Beg Oldie and built an advanced post at Tianwendian about 24-km from there in 1959.

The People’s Liberation Army launches patrols from here into the contested Depsang. They have done the same in the Galwan Valley. In 1960, an Indian post was at the source of the Galwan river at Samzungling, about 60-km upstream from the Point 14 now held by the PLA, about 2-km upstream of the confluence of the Galwan and Shyok rivers.

Despite having two widely overlapping LACs in Ladakh, Indian and Chinese forces had arrived at a unique modus vivendi since 1962. That is each side will patrol up to its perception of the LAC without confronting the other. India even co-operated to the extent of allowing them to patrol their post-1962 LAC.

Peace agreements

The desire for peace made both sides to cobble up agreements from time to time. In 1993, the agreement made it incumbent upon both sides to caution each other whenever their perceived LACs were crossed. The other side was then obliged to withdraw. This in effect created a no-mans buffer zone. Though 1993 stipulated that any dispute both sides would jointly check this and decide upon an alignment. But this never happened.

Then in 1996, both sides agreed to “exercise restraint when the patrols come face to face”. This agreement also stipulated that both sides would not use firearms or resort to any blasting 2-km from their perceived LACs. Both sides adhered to this but the patrols while not confronting each other began tailing each other keeping a distance between them. This agreement also obliged both sides not to construct anything of a permanent nature in the overlaps of the two LACs.

This worked till 2013 when the People’s Liberation Army objected to the Indo-Tibetan Border Police building reusable shelters in a place called Chumar. In May that year, a tailed People’s Liberation Army patrol decided to dig in midway between the two LACs in Depsang at a place called Rakhi Nula when the Chinese platoon decided to dig in.

The ITBP reported this via their hierarchy to the Union home ministry. By the time the home ministry informed the defence ministry across the street, some more time elapsed. Meanwhile, the People’s Liberation Army began to supply their dug in platoon using vehicles and helicopters. New Delhi saw this as a major breach and ordered the Army in. The Army then dug in at a point about 300 meters away from the Chinese platoon but effectively cutting away retreat.

This crisis was resolved by a meeting between the local military commanders with the Indian side agreeing to dismantle the Chumar structures and the People’s Liberation Army pulling out. This led to the more complex 2013 agreement, once again aimed at conflict prevention and conflict resolution, but not deciding on a mutually accepted LAC.

This is where we were when the People’s Liberation Army, taking advantage of the Indian security forces sloppiness in not mirroring the annual People’s Liberation Army exercises in the area, dug in at positions in the Galwan Valley, Hot Springs, Ghogra and the area between Fingers 4 and 8 on the north bank of the Pangong Tso. In Galwan, the new Chinese position was now less than 2-km from the modernised 230-km long road from Darbuk to Daulat Beg Oldie. The rest is too well known and recent and needs no recounting.

The timing of this could not be worse. India was in the midst of a major economic meltdown brought about by the flow of the Covid-19 virus from Wuhan to the rest of the world. It was also after a period of prolonged economic slowdown starting with the “demonetisation” of November 2016.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Leh in Ladakh. Photo credit: Instagram/NarendraModi

The electronic media, no doubt prodded by the Modi government, went into a fury over the “Chinese perfidy” and Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh made fire and brimstone speeches to the troops at Ladakh. The Indian military build-up was under the full glare of the embedded media and the newly acquired military hardware was on display.

Even the delivery of the first five Rafale fighters, which included two trainers, was turned into a muscle display show. Now, we have a situation where the Indian Army and People’s Liberation Army commanders have been in talks from June 16 seeking a disengagement. The two and fro dance continues. The question is here is who withdraws and to where? This requires the determination of a single LAC.

This is beyond the ken of the military commanders of both sides. Military men, even if instructed to find a compromise are usually loathed to withdraw to tactically disadvantageous positions. But the need of the hour is to do just this. This, therefore, calls for a mediation between the two militaries, and that is best done by a third country military.

Moscow as a mediator

A neutral military mediator can understand the tactical security concerns of either side and can help in determining the best under the circumstances. This is well beyond the capabilities of professional diplomats.

When the two foreign ministers met in Moscow for the annual Russia-India-China meeting, they agreed that the military commanders should settle the issue. The three countries have invested big in the trilateral group and now is the time to make it pay. Also a Sino-Indian war, even a limited war, will mean the end of Russia-India-China and its promise of a multi-polar world.

Moscow is uniquely placed to play the role of a neutral mediator to help the two countries find an agreement on one LAC. Russia has been engaged with both the militaries for decades and knows both sides well. It also enjoys a measure of trust in both countries. One hopes that both countries will find the good sense to utilise Russian mediation to settle this issue.

Mohan Guruswamy is the chairman and founder of the Centre for Policy Alternatives.