What Pangong means for Asian geopolitics

By C Uday Bhaskar

In a nutshell, after nine rounds of talks between the military commanders, both sides have agreed to a process which will see Chinese troops pulling back east of Finger 8, while Indian troops will remain at Finger 3 near the Dhan Singh Thapa Post. The area between Finger 4 and Finger 8 will be a no-man’s land, with a temporary cessation of patrols and related military activities by both sides, pending further agreement between the two countries.

It is significant that China has agreed to pull back from a position of relative tactical advantage and one may conjecture that the Indian occupation of the Kailash heights enabled this compromise.

Many questions have been raised in India about the nature of this disengagement process and whether it is a fair deal. The Congress has termed the “creation of a buffer zone” as a “surrender of Indian interests”. In a written response, the ministry of defence has asserted that “India has not conceded any territory as a result of this agreement”. On the contrary, the statement says, India has “enforced observance and respect for LAC and prevented any unilateral change in the status quo”.

While the disengagement process is a work-in-progress, it merits notice that the cessation of patrolling by both sides, in what is now a no-man’s land, is on the Indian side of LAC — that is west of Finger 8. Whether this will be a temporary arrangement for the Indian troops, pending further resolution of the long-festering territorial tangle between India and China, or whether it becomes the new status quo remains a key question.

Of immediate concern also is the status of the Depsang plateau and the Y junction where China has acquired a tactical advantage that can jeopardise India’s access to Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) and air assets in that region.

Will the current disengagement and the acceptance of a temporary suspension by India of patrolling rights in one area lead to greater malleability in managing LAC — remember China has been reluctant in clarifying LAC despite repeated Indian attempts — and provide a road map for transiting to an agreed border? That would be the most desirable outcome, in which case the current compromise by India would be a prudent political determination. An equitable and consensually settled border remains the elusive Holy Grail for Delhi.

However, if this is only a brief pause for Beijing and President Xi Jinping as China prepares for a major political event — the July centenary celebrations of the Communist Party of China — and the PLA subsequently reverts to its pattern of territorial assertiveness at LAC, then the curate’s egg analogy would come into play. Delhi may rue the accommodations it has made in the current disengagement process.

Whatever the final outcome, it will have an impact on external interlocutors such as the United States (US), Russia and China’s other neighbors. While Delhi’s resolve to resist Beijing’s aggressive bellicosity effectively will be noted by the smaller nations, the Delhi-Beijing bilateral dynamic will also shape — and be shaped by — the US-China-India triangle. 

President Joe Biden has signalled that the US will hold Beijing’s feet to the fire over the Indo-Pacific and the principles of freedom of navigation and territorial integrity, with a continued focus on reinvigorating Quad.

How China reads this message, and how it wishes to orient itself in relation to contested territoriality will shape many outcomes in Asia and beyond. Pangong is the bellwether.

(The Op-Ed appeared in The Hindustan Times)

Image courtesy of (File photo)

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