Conflicting reports emerged Wednesday on India and China achieving a breakthrough in the months-old Ladakh standoff during the eighth Corps Commander-level meeting held on 6 November in Chushul. Over more than a fortnight or so, information regarding breaking of the logjam in talks and probable phased disengagement of troops along the Line of Control in eastern Ladakh was getting leaked in dribs and drabs through 'sources', although none of the sides went on record.
The closest we came to an official confirmation that the stalemate might be reaching a denouement in eastern Ladakh " where armed troops by the thousands on both sides are hunkered down for a bitter winter in the Himalayas " was when India's External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar hinted at a seminar on 15 October that both sides were working on some sort of a plan, but he kept the details out of the public domain.
"Discussions are on; what is going on is something confidential between us and the Chinese," the minister had said, adding: "there is not very much that I am in a position to say in public. I certainly do not want to prejudge it," when pressed for details.
Jaishankar's comments came three days after the seventh round of Corps Commander-level talks on 12 October. The sixth and seventh round of military-level discussions also included diplomatic presence. India had sent a senior MEA bureaucrat in the sixth phase, and China reciprocated with its foreign ministry representative in the seventh. In her article dated 16 October, Indrani Bagchi of Times of India reported that "serious proposals" for a "comprehensive disengagement" have been exchanged, "that covers all the friction points along the LAC and addresses future problems", and these proposals have received highest attention among the top echelons of the government, including the China Study Group, India's apex policymaking body on China.
It was evident that something was going on behind the scenes and the reluctance of the actors in divulging details added to the contention that a solution might be around the corner. Prima facie, however, a mutually acceptable solution appears elusive because both sides have reached a stage where a backward step by one would be construed as a 'win' for the other, and the first to blink will pay a political cost.
Bloomberg reported that India has "lost control of about 250 square kilometers of land in the Depsang Plains, which holds key roads leading up to the Karakoram Pass, as well as 50 square kilometers of land in the Pangong Tso", and winter deployment by both sides was the biggest since the 1962 war.
Some commentators have pointed out that in Depsang Plains, the Chinese have erected no permanent structures that may be construed as "facts on the ground" but what they are doing, since May, is block Indian troops from visiting patrolling points via 'Y' junction. Be that as it may, blocking of patrolling rights is tantamount to lack of sovereign control, and it would be seen as such.
On the plus side, India managed to occupy strategically important heights on the ridgeline of Finger 4 and along the south bank of Pangong Tso that overlook Chinese posts in the area, giving India tactical advantage.
Amid this context, early November reports indicated that China's suggestions for disengagement include demands that India vacates strategic heights along the southern bank, withdraw tanks and artillery guns from the forward areas back to their peacetime locations and give up patrolling rights beyond Finger 3 in the northern bank. India wanted full disengagement from all friction points and restoration of status quo ante and also to make sure that China does not pull another fast one.
As The Print reported, quoting a source within Indian establishment, "they want the tanks and artillery guns to go back to peacetime locations from the southern bank area and other places. In some places, the distance will be 10 km and at other places 20 km and more. Chinese have plainer terrain on their side and better infrastructure. This means that they can come back faster than us if they decide to do so."
Not surprising that the proposals cut no ice. Instead, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh made it clear early November that "India is determined to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of unilateralism and aggression, no matter what the sacrifice."
This timeline is important to give us a sense of the hard-nosed diplomatic negotiations behind the scenes and it was evident that India's capture of the strategic heights along Pangong Tso and the onset of a brutal winter were crucial levers in the bargain. For all their fancy equipment and gear, the PLA is at a disadvantage when it comes to deployment at the high Himalayas in the middle of winter when temperatures may dip to around -40°C. Indian troops, who remain deployed round the year at the world's highest battlefield on Siachen, are physically and mentally better prepared to tackle the conditions than the PLA who are brought from the mainland.
The timeline gets interesting from here. We were told right after the eighth-round meeting between Corp Commanders at Chushul on 6 November that "there was no headway." The MEA readout indicated nothing beyond the template of "candid, in-depth and constructive exchange of views on disengagement."
It now appears that this was not the full picture, and apparently the Chinese have put forward a revised disengagement plan that promises troop withdrawal to the positions in April-May, which has been India's core demand. According to the three-step, sequential disengagement proposal " which news agency ANI claims was discussed during the 6 October talks " tanks and armoured vehicles are to be removed from the frontline and deployed at depth areas; around 30 percent of troops from both sides are to be withdrawn every day for three days from the northern bank of Pangong Tso.
The PLA will apparently clear its structures and edifices between Finger 4 and 8 and fall back on their position to the east of Finger 8 while India will be positioned close to Dhan Singh Thapa post keeping the area between Finger 4 and 8 as the no-go area for both sides. Finally, both sides are to withdraw from their respective positions from the frontline along the southern bank of Pangong Lake area which includes the heights and territories around Chushul and Rezang La area. These steps will be verified via Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and a joint mechanism through delegation meetings. According to the ANI report, "the armies of the two countries have agreed" to the proposal.
Other reports, however, provide a conflicting version. Defence and security analyst Nitin Gokhale writes in StratNews Global that "all that remains is for both sides to formalise the sequencing of steps required to achieve the objective," and the top military leaders are likely to strike an agreement on the modalities of the process. "If an agreement is reached, the first two steps are likely to be accomplished before the end of the month."
Dinakar Peri writes in The Hindu that the proposal is still "under discussion and will be taken up at the next round of Corps Commander talks soon. Once agreed upon, it will be done in multiple phases, with on-ground verification after each step."
The Print informs us that "this is just a proposal, which is being considered, and not an agreement. The modalities are yet to be worked out as to how many (troops, equipment) will go back and till where. However, the good thing is that Chinese are flexible and open to discussion on all friction points."
Vishnu Som writes in NDTV that "there is no signature or agreement on the plan's implementation as yet, the sources said. No time period has been agreed upon within which to implement the plan; neither is the extent to which it will happen decided between the two sides."
Lack of official confirmation and proliferation of source-based reports, very often presenting a conflicting picture, create confusion over the true nature of the proposals, the stage of their rejection or approval and schedule of implementation, if any.
It also suggests that a mind game is being played to drive a harder bargain at the negotiation table. One thing is clear, however, that diplomatic engagement seems to be bearing fruit, and the chances of a high-voltage clash or a prolonged deployment all through the winter are lessening. This should not be taken to mean that those possibilities have vanished.
Given China's penchant for doublespeak and their ill-reputation for being unreliable in following up words with actions, it would be prudent for India to exercise maximum caution. India must adopt the mantra of 'distrust and verify' and should not give up on its advantageous position along the southern bank of Pangong Tso unless it is verifiably clear that the PLA is following every step to the 'T'.
With the LoC getting hotter by the day, there would be a temptation among the Indian military leadership to reduce the quantum of troops from eastern Ladakh and redeploy them along the LoC. Latest reports, however, suggest that the army is planning to deploy 10,000 more permanent troops along the LAC.
Cautious optimism can't be faulted, but the temptation to put temporal pressure on ending the standoff must be avoided. Making haste and repenting at leisure would be a costly mistake, and fatal, when it comes to China.