On 6th August 2021, the Ministry of Defence published a press release entitled “Disengagement at PP 17A” after the twelfth round of talks held on 31st July 2021, between the Corps Commanders of India and China at the Chushul Moldo Meeting Point in Eastern Ladakh. It announced that after at-length discussion about the strategies of disengagement and resolution along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Western Sector of the Indo-China border, both sides resolved to implement disengagement at Gogra between to 4th to 5th August 2021 – where troops had been facing off since May 2020. The release confirmed that forward deployments have been mutually ceased in this area “in a phased, coordinated and verified manner”; that both troops have returned to their permanent bases; that all temporary and allied infrastructures constructed have been “dismantled and mutually verified”; and, that the landform has been restored to its status in the pre-stand off period. Observers reported that a buffer zone akin to the one in Galwan Valley has been created between the rival soldiers at a “friction point” in the Gogra-Hot Springs-Kongka La sector, and no patrolling would take place in the area by either side. In Galwan – after violent clashes on 15th June 2020 leading to casualties on both sides – a disengagement zone was created that extends to 1.4 km on each side (around 3 km total), with 30 soldiers positioned at each edge in tents and 50 each in the second layer farther away. At PP-17A (like at PP-15), there were only 30 soldiers on each side separated by 500 m after the unsuccessful partial disengagement of 2020; though both sides claim that several troops backed by heavy arms (howitzers, air defense batteries) are positioned elsewhere on the “immediate rear areas” of the LAC Western Sector.
The Indian government believes that this agreement will guarantee that the LAC along the Western Sector is strictly observed and respected by both India and China, who will both commit to resolving the remaining contentions in the area without any unilateral change to the status quo. Finally, the press release reiterated the determination of the Indian Army and the Into-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) to uphold Indian sovereignty, and peace and tranquility along the LAC in the Western Sector. It is probable after the satisfactory resolution of the Patrolling Point-17A tensions and disengagement at Galwan and Pangong Tso, the focus for peacebuilding will shift to Hot Springs (PP15), the Depsang and Demchok. Indian troop patrols have been blocked at PP-10, PP-11, PP-12 and PP-13 in the Depsang Bulge area, and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have pitched tents in the Demchok sector. Currently therefore, the Indian government has confirmed that mutually verified complete disengagement has taken place at Galwan (PP-14), Gogra (PP-17A) and Pangong Tso, and conflicts remain at Hot Springs (PP-15), Demchok and Depsang – which have been attempted to be resolved at the thirteenth Corps Commander meeting on 10th October 2021.
The twelfth round of talks occurred after both sides had attempted to carry out partial disengagement at Gogra and Hot Springs in 2020, but the process was stymied after fresh skirmishes broke out along the South bank of Pangong Tso. Two weeks before these talks commenced, the Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar had communicated to his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, at the hourlong bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Shanghai Corporation Organisation (SCO) conclave at Dushanbe in Tajikistan on 14th July 2021 – that Sino-Indian bilateral ties were being “impacted in a negative manner” due to the continued crisis in Eastern Ladakh. In this meeting Jaishankar had also clarified that India’s primary objective was to “restore peace and tranquility” to Ladakh, and the development of any ties with China was conditional on that and on the latter not effecting any unilateral change to the status quo.
The purpose of this article is to analyze the possible implications of the newly created buffer zone in the Western Sector of the LAC in Eastern Ladakh after Sino-Indian mutual disengagement. It will first summarize the recent history of India-China conflict in the area to understand the factors that led to this development, and how those effect the implications therein. Second, it will study what exactly a no-patrol buffer zone is, and what it entails therein. Finally, it will describe the various possible consequences of this development, including concerns about Chinese return to status quo, creation of a new LAC, and incursions upon Indian sovereignty.
Recent History of Sino-Indian Skirmishes in the Area
Divisions from the Western Theatre Command of PLA’s Ground Force, the 4th (Highland) Motorised Infantry and 6th (Highland) Mechanised Infantry Divisions began to move units towards the contested LAC in Eastern Ladakh from April 2020, to reinforce the deployment already in place. These divisions remained from May 2020 to February 2021 and was succeeded by the 8th and 11th Motorised Divisions, PLA Airforce, and PLA Rocket Force. On 24th May 2020, the PLA objected to Indian road construction at multiple locations in Eastern Ladakh in the Galwan Valley. China perceived Indian road building in the area as a direct threat to its territorial sovereignty. Melee fighting broke out on 15th and 16th June 2020, leading to the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers and 43 PLA casualties, with soldiers taken captive on both sides (though this was subsequently denied by both India and China). On 7th September 2020, shots were fired along the LAC for the first time in forty-five years, as India attempted to foil China’s bid to capture a key strategic height and China blamed India for unreasonable display of force. Indian troops also fired warning shots at the PLA on 30th August 2021. Alongside the partial disengagement from Galwan, Hot Springs and Gogra between June-July 2020, complete disengagement was enforced at the north and south banks of the Pangong Tso. During the June 2020 standoff, the Indian Army positioned approximately 12000 additional workers to assist the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) in competing the development of infrastructure along the Sino-Indian border – the all-weather Darbuk–Shyok–DBO Road in Ladakh. According to Taylor Fravel, the Chinese standoffs were presumably a pre-emptive reaction to this, even though China has continued to aggressively develop infrastructure along the disputed border as part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Observers believe that the abrogation of Article 370 and revocation of special status of Jammu and Kashmir by the Modi administration worsened Sino-Indian relations, though both countries have several bilateral mechanisms currently active, including special representatives’ meetings, meetings of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on China-India Border Affairs (WMCC), meetings between high-level ministers (defence and foreign ministers), and several rounds of dialogue between colonel, brigadier and major-general ranks. After the skirmish at Galwan Valley, the Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT) launched a campaign entitled “Bhartiya Samaan-Hamara Abhimaan” across India to boycott Chinese products through a broad list of over 450 categories of commodities. The government enacted economic reprisal through several measures including the cancellation and additional scrutiny of contracts with Chinese firms, efforts to halt the entry of Chinese companies into strategic Indian markets, and the banning of over 200 Chinese apps owned by Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu, Sina and Bytedance by November 2020. The Indian Army has increased its deployment against China following the Galwan incident in the northern, central, and eastern sectors, adding the ITBP to the already-deployed 14 Corps based in Leh, 17 Corps and 33 Corps in Sikkim, and 3 Corps and 4 Corps in the eastern sector.
Historically, the LAC (especially in Eastern Ladakh) has been disputed by India and China at multiple locations because there are no publicly available maps other than those published by the Survey of India, that depict India’s conception of the LAC. On the other hand, the Chinese version consists of claims in the Ladakh region and in Arunachal Pradesh. Only 50 rounds of bilateral talks have taken place between the countries on border issues since the 1980s, even though only 1-2% of border incidents between 2010 and 2014 have been reported to public knowledge. In 2019 however, India reported that China had engaged in over 660 LAC violations and 108 aerial violations, though no gunshots were fired by either side until 7th September 2020. Though Prime Minister Modi and Xi Jinping met 18 times since the former’s ascension to power in 2014, no long-term solution has been found to the border issue even as both sides have declared their commitment to peace. In 2017, India and China engaged in a major skirmish at Doklam that lasted for 73 days, and the latter issued the first Training Mobilisation Order under the Central Military Commission on 3rd January 2018. According to PLA veterans, as China continues to increase its presence in the Tibetan Plateau and in Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan, and to focus on improving combat readiness and military training through defensive strategies, it poses a direct threat to India’s ambitions in South Asia.
Various scholars and observers have cited various reasons for the conflict along the LAC Western Sector. According to Mitch McConnell and Ashely Tellis, China’s method of occupying territory through “salami slicing” or aggressive encroachment upon small sections of territory over an extended period has understandably frustrated Indian authorities. In June 2020, Urgain Chodon, the chairperson of Koyul-Demchok was joined by several other Ladakhi leaders in stating that the successive Indian governments had failed to protect its borders and ignored decades of Chinese land-grabbing, leading to the country losing land all long the LAC. According to Fravel, Lobsang Sangay – the President of the Tibetan-government-in-exile, and Jayadeva Ranade, the Galwan incident specifically was an effort by China to project power amidst the COVID-19 pandemic which had caused heavy losses to Chinese economy (especially the BRI and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) and damaged its international reputation. For Wang Shida, Pravin Sawheny and Gautam Bambawale, the abrogation of Article 370 and the subsequent assertions of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) politicians declaring Aksai Chin as part of the Indian-administered Ladakh Union Territory, and professing ambitions to regain Gilgit-Baltistan, irked China. Other analysts like Tanvi Madan and Phunchok Stobdan believe that increased Chinese incursions are a consequence of growing India-United States of America relations, with China displaying “a more aggressive stance” towards smaller countries “as a signal to limit” relations with the USA. According to Ashok Kantha, former Indian ambassador to China, these skirmishes are a component of the larger Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea and the Sino-Indian border.
What is a No-patrol Buffer Zone?
When two opposing forces facing off eyeball-to-eyeball at close proximity disengage from each other, they may opt to create a zone where neither side is allowed to patrol for a certain length of time to build conditions of peace and stability. After the Sino-Indian conflict of 1962, China declared a unilateral ceasefire on 21st November 1962 and pulled back its troops 20 km away from (what it perceived was) the location of the LAC on 7th November 1959. Thus, it created a buffer zone of sorts extending between where its forces withdrew to, and where the LAC was. In 2013, India utilized the same concept when negotiating with China to end the stand-off caused by the PLA pitching tents in the Bottleneck of Depsang Plains. As part of the agreement that eventually resolved the skirmish, India elected to temporarily halt patrolling in Chumar (further south in Eastern Ladakh), thus creating a buffer zone. The decision to suspend patrolling is immensely significant in cases where the boundary is undecided. In the case of India and China, where both countries disagree on the alignment of the LAC, patrolling is undertaken to assert control over the territory. For India, the patrolling points (PP) are delineated by the China Study Group (CSG), which is the sole advisor to the central government on all matters regarding China. The CSG has decided over 60 PPs in Eastern Ladakh, some of which are points marked on a map while others are specific geographical features. Other than the Depsang Plains, the limit of every PP in that area is located on the LAC, though they remain significantly westwards. As of 2020, there are 10 points in Eastern Ladakh where both sides have contesting perceptions of the LAC, and five new “friction points” have emerged, including Rezang La, Rechin La, PP-14 (Galwan), PP-15 (Hot Springs), and PP17A (Gogra Post). India has most recently stopped patrolling at PP-17A since the commencement of stand-offs in May 2020, having first established a no-patrol zone in Galwan Valley. The Chushul subsector on the south bank of Pangong Tso saw an unprecedented winter deployment in February 2020, as both sides moved forward from the unoccupied Kailash Range. In the north bank, the PLA occupied the peaks above Finger 4, which is 8 km westward of the Indian perception of LAC at finger 8. After the agreement for disengagement, according to Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, both sides took “mutual and reciprocal steps” to pull back – with India retreating to Dhan Singh Thapa Post (west of Finger 3), and China moving back to its traditional post east of Finger 3 and dismantling all structures established between Finger 8 and Finger 4. Thus, a buffer zone was created between Finger 3 and Finger 4, and patrolling was halted until both sides could reach an agreement in subsequent diplomatic and military talks.
No-patrol points or buffer zones are not replicated in the same way everywhere they are established, as several factors come into play. According to senior military officials, replication is not done “blindly”, and it depends on the infrastructure currently available, whether or not either side already has a traditional permanent structure within the range decided for another PP, what a “viable position” is from where the functions of observation and communication can be operationalized, and what amount of distance is tactical. However, for Indian officials, the suspension of patrolling is not permanent, and India is entitled to resume it at any point; though both sides have agreed to halt patrolling until the conflict is resolved satisfactorily. The creation of these zones entails not only disengagement from friction points but is also part of the larger conflict management process of de-escalation – where both sides withdraw the additional troops stationed in the area since 2019.
What are the Implications?
To properly understand the implications of the new buffer zone created around PP-17A, it is important to analyse the consequences of the buffer zones created elsewhere in the LAC Western Sector in Eastern Ladakh aiming to de-escalate the recent conflicts. For most military veterans and observers, though the particularities of PP-17A differ from other areas where similar buffer zones have been implemented, the similarity of the terrain, the belligerents and the geopolitics, signal that the implications of other buffer zones would act as appropriate litmus tests for the consequences of the most recent one.
In 2020, India and China agreed to disengage from Galwan Valley by creating a 4 km buffer zone, after both sides moved back 2 km from PP-14. At that time, analysts were concerned about its implications on the worsening conditions at Pangong Tso, Depsang, PP-15 and PP-17A, especially as PLA soldiers were already encroaching upon the first, with thousands of troops backed by tanks, artillery, and air support. It was uncertain how long the temporary suspension of patrolling was supposed to last, especially as both sides remained secretive about ground-level verification of China maintaining its end of the bargain. The larger concern then, was whether the creation of the buffer one would bring an undesirable transformation to the conception of the LAC and become a new status quo in the region, as India was creating a buffer zone within its own territory. For even proponents of this decision, the fact that India halted patrolling without a clear idea of China’s intentions could likely be extremely detrimental to India’s national security, especially as the arrangement was largely disproportionate. Veterans also expressed alarm at the hasty change in the Indian government’s official response to the crisis, which severely hindered the public’s perception of the issue and allowed China to assert its dominance. The Modi administration first stated that no intrusion or occupation had taken place (even as 20 Indian soldiers and 4 PLA troops were killed at Galwan), but then announced later that it had agreed to withdraw and create buffer zones. This vacuum in information allowed China to dismiss any allegations of border incursions and claim ownership of all occupied territory in the international fora, thus severely weakening India’s position.
When the Indian government had negotiated the 10 km-wide demilitarized buffer zone as part of the disengagement procedure from Pangong Tso, military veterans questioned the “concessions” and “blunders” made when engaging with China. In this case, as India agreed to retreat from Pangong Tso, China was not compelled to restore the status quo ante April 2020 and disengage from the Depsang Plains where they encroached 18 km into Indian territory and blocked troop movement. For Rtd. Colonel Ajai Shukla, the buffer zone created between Finger 3 and Finger 8 not only indicates Indian acceptance of Chinese sovereignty in the area, but also blocks Indian troops from patrolling a region they have had access to since 1962. Specifically, if the Indian Army retreats to Finger 3 and agrees to not patrol the 10 km till Finger 8 – the whole of which is on the Indian side of the Indian conception of LAC (while also not pressuring China to withdraw from Depsang), it indicates that India has somewhat accepted China’s claim over the area as well. On the other hand, China refused to engage with talks until India withdrew from the strategically located Kailash Range vantage point that they had captured in September 2020 and lost their primary “bargaining chip.” Veterans expressed their dismay at the Indian administration agreeing to this demand “in a tearing hurry”, and not imposing its ultimatum on China, especially at China could now threaten the Indian strategic airfield at Daulat Beg Oldie from Depsang (which lies near the essential Darbuk-Shyok-DBO Road). For military officials however, this agreement was hastened as both sides were eager to disengage and withdraw their troop given the difficult terrain and harsh weather conditions.
Even after the press release declaring that disengagement was implemented and mutually verified at Gogra (PP-17A), satellite imagery illustrates that China’s semi-permanent bases remain in the region, except in an administrative area along Changlung River. It is unclear whether India has accepted these Chinese structures on the Indian side of the LAC. Secondly, given that it is India’s conception that the PLA had intruded into the Indian side of the LAC and was then compelled to withdraw (the same distance as the Indian Army), it is evident that the whole buffer zone is completely on the Indian side of the LAC. Essentially, if China entered Indian territory and then withdrew a specific distance, the fact that India withdrew too may imply that the Chinese have managed to de facto shift the LAC further westwards into Indian territory and created an area within Indian territory where Indian troops can no longer patrol. Veterans are concerned whether the point to which Indian troops have withdrawn, will be considered the new LAC. Observers were also hesitant to acknowledge the information provided by the press release as sacrosanct as it stated that “the troops in Gogra have been in a faceoff situation since May last year.” There had been no acknowledgement of this fact in 2020 or 2021 despite several speeches by the Defence Minister and other high-level military officials, fomenting concern about the actual number of face-offs that are currently underway on the LAC Western Sector in Ladakh that the Indian public have not been informed about. Analysts have highlighted similar practises of “obfuscation and denial of information” by the Indian government during the Doklam crisis in 2017, where though the Indian troops withdrew to their permanent post, the PLA withdrew only 150 m and created a fully operational permanent military base. As the government utilizes terms like “friction points” or “sensitive areas of faceoff”, veterans have expressed their concern that this not only dilutes the crisis and keeps the Indian public in the dark but could also create a situation analogous to Doklam at Gogra. Senior army officers have also been troubled by the Indian government being “very economical with the truth” as it continues to change its official position without keeping even the defence forces in the know. The government has not issued a statement with the specific details of the disengagement (other than vague assertions of the same). Nor has it informed the higher-level army officers exactly when India will regain patrolling access to the newly-created buffer zone.
To further comprehend the implications of the new buffer zone, it is important to understand why the Chang Chenmo Sector – Gogra (PP-17A), Hot Springs (PP-15) and Kongka La – is strategically important. The LAC and the 1959 Claim Line (CL) coincide in this area. On 21st October 1959, a CRPF patrol of 20 jawans was waylaid by the PLA at Kongka La, leading to 10 deaths and 7 taken as prisoners of war. China unilaterally withdrew back to the 1959 CL after the 1962 Sino-India war. This area is strategically important because three axes or approaches lead to Aksai Chin from here, which reduces the journey for Indian Army patrols in the Galwan Valley by 70-80 km. One axis runs eastward from Kongka La to Lanak La (through the Tibet-Xinjiang Highway 219), the second runs northward from Kugrang River via Changlung Nala (PP-17 and PP-17A), and the third runs 30 km upstream via Jianan Pass (PP-15 and PP-16) towards the upper banks of the Galwan River. Given its proximity to contested borders and territory, acrimonious neighbours, and hostile terrain, it has long been India’s strategic imperative to develop road infrastructure to better accessibility – which it has aggressively pursued over the last decade. For China, this constituted a direct threat to their contested claims in Aksai Chin. In retaliation, the PLA intruded across the 1959 CL via Changlung Nala and Jianan Pass to hinder Indian access to the Kungrang River Valley beyond Gogra (north bank of Galwan River), and to Kongka La and Hot Springs in Eastern Ladakh. Though the incursion was only 3 km and 4 km respectively, the configuration of the mountainous terrain ensured that Chinese occupation denied the Indian forces access to the 30-35 km-long and 4-5 km-wide Kugrang River Valley. In both these cases, veterans observed that China was able to successfully achieve its military aim of preventing the development of border infrastructure that would potentially endanger its fragile and contentious claims upon Aksai Chin and Galwan Valley. They also discerned that because this area is linked to Lukung by a 100 km-long road through dangerous terrain, if the PLA does not disengage or continues to escalate the situation, access to the entire Chang Chenmo sector could be cut off at Tsogtsalu, Marsimik La, or Phobrang. Given that India is still unsure about the conditions at Pangong Tso, a Chinese offensive north of the river would cause the loss of all territory northwards and northeast of the river. China is aware of these factors and is extremely focused on its strategic objectives in the area. Thus, it was improbable that it would agree to restore status quo ante April 2020, despite India’s objections to the matter. By agreeing to implement the buffer zone at PP-17A, India has agreed to either a de facto buffer zone in the entire Kugrang River Valley and all routes leading north of the LAC, or to two buffer zones – beyond PP-16 and PP-17 northwards of the LAC and the Kugrang River. In both cases however, it has conceded to halting patrolling in a large area within its territory, which had been accessible until April 2020. Senior military officials have reiterated that is essential that India accept and operationalise the immediate strategic imperative of bridging the differential in comprehensive national power (comprising of economic and military capability) with China, if it is to entertain any hope of effectively countering China in the region. The Indian administration must seek to foster two to three decades of economic development and revolutions in military affairs, while maintaining a balanced influence in the region as it encounters a rapidly expansionist China.
The problems inherent in the agreements reached at the 12th Corps Commander-level talks about the new buffer zone became more apparent when the 13th Round of Corps Commander-level talks at the Chushul-Moldo border held on 10th October 2021 to negotiate disengagement from PP-15 (Hot Springs) ended in an impasse, with both sides releasing polemical statements against each other. There are several reasons for this. China’s strategic aim in Eastern Ladakh (LAC Western Sector) was to foist its hegemony upon India and secure the 1959 CL, and it managed to partially achieve this through pre-emptive manoeuvres in April-May 2020. Alongside PP-15, PP-16, PP-17, and PP-17A, it captured 600-800 sq. km southwards of Depsang Plains, hindering the Indian Army access to PP-10, PP-11, PP-12, and PP-13. It also mobilized troops opposite Hot Springs, denying access to Kongka La (PP-18). Its intrusion 40-60 km north of Pangong Tso still prevails. So does its invasion south of Demchok, where the Indian Army have been denied access to Charding-Ninglung Nala. Though China had no intention to withdraw from these areas, as India seized Kailash Post on the night of 29th August 2021, it managed to diplomatically outmanoeuvre India by disengaging from Pangong Tso. There were virtually no successive agreements made after that point, as the Modi administration became engaged in election campaigns for the state legislatures, while also enhancing troop deployment and infrastructure in the area. For Lt. Gen. HS Panag, the agreement for disengagement and creation of buffer zones at PP-17 was “mere tokenism”, especially because it only covered that specific area and not the Chang Chenmo sector as a whole. Due to the configuration of the terrain and the fact that the issue of intrusion into PP-15 and PP-16 was not discussed in the 12th round of talks, it became evident that China had no obligation to maintain its negotiated position. This led to the 13th round of talks occurring between two sides with significantly hardened positions. China expressed its intent clearly by intruding into the Barahoti Sector on 30th August, damaging army bunkers and a bridge, before withdrawing. Though the Indian government informed the public about this in the last week of September, it was evident that the location of the incursion was specifically intended to project power upon India, as it was here that China had first intruded in 1954. On 28th September, China intruded yet again 12-16 km eastwards of Bum La in Tawang Sector, and 200 PLA soldiers were briefly detained – which was triumphantly reported across mainstream Indian media. As Chinese media denied the incident, experts predicted that the constellation of factors – concessions made at PP-17A, repeated incursions by China in flagrant dismissal of Indian sovereignty, lack of political will to successfully resolve the conflict – would entail that the resolution of the crisis at PP-15 would be difficult to achieve. Thus, as China refused to dismantle its large-scale constructions, despite assurances to do so, the impasse was the only logical consequence.
What are the Possible Future Implications?
The LAC Western Sector in Eastern Ladakh is currently in a state of strategic stalemate. On one hand, China has secured occupation across the 1959 CL, except in the Depsang sector. On the other, India faces a deficiency of political will and military capability to force a restoration to status quo ante, or to appropriately oppose China’s tactical imposition of will that embarrassed the former internationally. Nevertheless, India has been able to deny China a strategic victory through massive deployment and the riposte seizing Kailash Range, thus becoming the only regional counterweight to China (other than the USA) in the eyes of the international community. China faces a twofold dilemma after dismantling the relative peace that had endured since the 1986-1987 Sumdorong Chu confrontation. The terrain is too treacherous to risk limited war with no probability of decisive victory. However, it cannot disengage from the LAC because it is aware that India will promptly occupy that vacuum. India has now been compelled to force operational and capacity-oriented reforms in its armed forces to reduce the military differential with China, and veterans hope that this will allow it eventually counter China as an equal. It is probable that both sides will seek to avoid military confrontation and reconcile to reinforcing the respective borders with paramilitary forces backing regular forces in permanent camps at striking distance. However, this also means that the only way to bring any change to the de facto LAC created by the new buffer zone, is through limited war. Since this is disagreeable to both sides, it seems that the LAC as it stands could be a permanent solution.
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