India - China military stand-off ends, Diplomatic tensions continue

Indian media reported on May 5th, China made ​​a surprise withdrawal from the disputed area Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) in Ladakh, where they penetrated and pitched tents 19km deep inside the Indian territory over 2 weeks ago.

China-India face-off ends as armies withdraw from Ladakh

After a tense face-off for a couple of weeks, Chinese troops have decided to withdraw from Indian territory in Depsang plains in northern Ladakh. This will pave the way for foreign minister Salman Khurshid's visit to Beijing on May 9 and the Chinese premier's India visit on May 20.

While the official line is that both armies have withdrawn to their previous positions, its unclear why the Indian army would have to move back since it is very much within Indian territory. In fact, in his statement to a parliament committee, the ministry of defence had clarified that Chinese troops had come 19km inside Indian territory.

Both sides held the fourth and fifth flag meetings between local commanders over the weekend, amid the faint possibility of a resolution to the continuing troop standoff in the Depsang Bulge area in the coming days, which would make it possible for the visit to go on. The first three flag meetings, on April 18, 23 and 30, at Spanggur Gap between the Daulat Beg Oldi and Chushul sectors had failed to break the deadlock.

It is unclear whether India made any concessions to the Chinese or whether the withdrawal was unconditional. The Indian government had been reluctant to take a strong line with the Chinese for what was a national security scare. It is only under intense public and political pressure that the UPA government finally took a hard line.

Did India make a deal?

The Chinese had been insisting that India dismantle its security and monitoring posts built in Chumar and other areas. India had resisted this because Chumar is considered to have strategic significance, particularly since Indian soldiers can monitor troop movements across the Line of Actual Control from there.

Before the news of the troops withdrawing was announced, some sources had said India might agree to remove some of the structures as "a face saver" to enable the Chinese troops to withdraw to their pre-April 15 positions. Analysts said if the Indian government had indeed agreed to make a deal with the Chinese, this kind of incursion would be repeated over and over again.

The Chinese intransigence had created a political problem with memories of the 1962 war and India's humiliating defeat by China playing in everyone's minds. Both the ruling Congress party and the opposition had asked for Khurshid's visit to be cancelled after Chinese troops refused to withdraw despite three flag meetings with the Indian side.

The Chinese action caught India by surprise in mid-April. The Indian government tried hard to rationalize the incursion, with the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh describing it as "localized problem" and Khurshid as mere "acne". The Indian reaction was seen to be late, inadequate and appeared to be glossing over the importance of the Chinese action.

The government has been trying to preserve the forthcoming visit of the Chinese Premier Li Keqiang scheduled for May 20. But political pressure and growing public opinion has hardened the government's stand in recent days, with government leaders saying the Chinese visit could be cancelled if their troops did not withdraw.

Border row high on bilateral agenda with China now

Chinese troops at Daulat Beg Oldi sector of Ladakh holding banner during the stand-off that reads: "You've crossed the border, please go back." (PTI photo)

NEW DELHI: Though the Chinese troops' withdrawal ended the stand-off in Ladakh, the Sino-Indian boundary dispute will loom larger in the upcoming bilateral engagement during Chinese Premier Li Keqiang's visit than it would ordinarily have.

According to intelligence sources, prior to the withdrawal, the Chinese were assured by the Indian side that their concerns over the Indian border fortifications that have come up in Chumar, as well as the recent strengthening of infrastructure "too close to the LoC", would be taken up soon at the highest level.

"This may possibly mean that the boundary issue may figure more prominently in Li's upcoming visit to India on May 20," a senior government official told TOI.

Incidentally, the assessment in the security establishment has been that the Chinese incursion, some 19 km into what India perceives as its side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), was essentially to flag the border demarcation issue and force India to move beyond brushing aside each incursion as a "difference of perception between India and China over LAC."

The Chinese troops' unprecedented act of pitching tents and staying put for days together at the point of incursion, rather than following the laid down border protocol of retreating soon after Indian border troops raise a banner, was possibly to make a point that it was time that the border row was addressed.

The timing was perfect, coming as it did just ahead of Li's visit. In fact, the flagging of concerns over the border fortifications at the earlier flag meetings, the ITBP believes, may have been an after-thought and meant to prolong the stand-off until closer to the Chinese premier's visit.

With the troops finally agreeing to retreat, India expects the tents to be pulled down on Sunday night, resulting in an all-clear by Monday morning. But as officials pointed out, the Chinese appear to have already achieved the purpose behind their latest border provocation: to make the border issue a prominent item on the agenda for Li's visit.

Times of India


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