Abstract: The Sino-Indian contested border is the basis of the ongoing conflict In Ladakh. This article encapsulates the present juncture of the Sino-Indian border standoff at the Line of Actual Control. The recent skirmishes between both armed forces have dramatically altered the bilateral relationship. Now, even though a breakthrough has been achieved, the situation is still far from being normal. While the officials from both sides have shown a commitment to maintaining continuous dialogue, there are many strategic and operational dilemmas looming large.
Bottom-line-up-front: The recent dis-engagement process at Pangong Tso is a positive development to kick-start on-ground improvement but is far from the resolution of the ongoing conflict.
Problem statement: How to implement and maintain a dis-engagement process in a situation of military tension and a lack of mutual trust between India and China?
So what?: An effective conflict resolution mechanism and new Confidence Building Measures are required to achieve a comprehensive solution. Both armed forces need to re-establish trust and engage in continuous dialogue at all levels.
The historic dispute between the two most populous countries globally made it into the headlines in June 2020 following a deadly clash in Galwan Valley between the Indian Army and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The nine-month-long standoff with the deployment of more than 50,000 troops along with advanced weaponry in Ladakh has brought about a rupture in the bilateral ties. While there have been continued diplomatic and military level dialogues, the differing terms of disengagement have stalled the negotiation process. On one hand, the Indian side had reiterated a systematic ‘disengage, de-escalate and de-induct’ strategy and restoration of status quo ante. The Chinese side, on the other hand, was focused on the withdrawal of the Indian Army from the southern bank of the Pangong Tso.
However, after a nine month-long standoff and multiple diplomatic and military level talks, a breakthrough has been achieved at the Sino-Indian Border in Eastern Ladakh.
This has brought about a sigh of relief as it prevents an escalation of the current conflict. A consensus has been reached, and both the armed forces’ officials agreed upon the disengagement of troops from the North and the South banks of Pangong Tso. The Chinese transgression of 8km west to the Indian perception of the LAC (Line of Actual Control) was checkmated in late August 2020 by the Indian Army occupying the strategic heights along the Kailash range in the Chushul sector, which provides India with a clear view of any PLA aggression at Moldo and through Spanggur Gap. It gave India a bargaining chip while negotiating. However, New Delhi has eventually agreed to a “phased” disengagement process as opposed to its previous insistence of simultaneous withdrawal along the LAC. As per the statement by Indian Defence Minister, Rajnath Singh, “both sides will remove the forward deployment in a phased, coordinated and verified manner”. The Chinese Defence Ministry, on 10th February, released a statement of “synchronized and organized disengagement” in accordance with the 9th round of Corps-Commander level meeting.
According to the agreement, the PLA has moved to the east of the Finger 8 area and the Indian Army to its permanent Dhan Singh Thapa post near Finger 3. It is agreed that the area between Finger 3 and Finger 8 will remain a no-patrolling zone until further talks. Similar pullback took place at the Southern bank, and constructions done since April 2020 have been removed.
While vacating the Kailash Range's strategic heights takes away the operational leverage of the Indian Army, it was also imperative to build trust and ease the current tense standoff. Such a compromise creates much apprehension on the success of further negotiations at crucial friction points of Depsang, Gogra, and Hot Springs. Depsang remains strategically important for India due to its proximity to Karakoram Range. It has been a flash-point in the 2013 skirmish, and the PLA deployment has hindered patrolling by the Indian side. India needs to strategically negotiate further dis-engagement considering the time-sensitivity and aim for a holistic resolution along the LAC.
There is a huge trust deficit between the neighbors, making Indian strategists skeptical of whether China will walk the talk this time. According to Indian Army Chief Gen MM Naravane, a verification process is underway and the troops are proceeding with caution until trust attitudes are reinforced. In retrospect, the Indian strategists are also doubtful of any reassurance of restoration of status quo-ante due to temporary buffer zones along the Pangong Tso. Even though this phase of the disengagement process has been completed, many questions are looming on the future of this conflict-resolution mechanism. The assurance of subsequent disengagement at other friction points came down heavily as during the 10th round of military-level talks; no significant discussion was held on other friction points.
In retrospect, the Indian strategists are also doubtful of any reassurance of restoration of status quo-ante due to temporary buffer zones along the Pangong Tso.
Moreover, the carefully crafted announcement of the casualty numbers resulting from the clash just after the dis-engagement process began, by Chinese state-run media, signals Xi’s domestic propaganda. China’s media warfare tactics to influence public sentiment have led to significant backlash against India and could impact the recent developments. Hence, what is visible is a mere semblance of approaching normalcy since it prevented any further escalation in the Pangong Tso sector. India needs to resort to cautious optimism and be vigilant of possible attempts of new maneuvers by the Chinese army. Furthermore, when China is prone to practice brinkmanship, a credible verification process is requisite. India must keep building its military capabilities and modernize its capacities in all domains. Furthermore, a continued alignment between military, diplomatic, and political channels is pivotal in changing the narratives of this situation at LAC.
It is imperative to keep in mind Xi's broader strategic goal of countering India’s rise to assert dominance in Asia and globally subsequently.
CPC’s increasing wariness with India’s association with the QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) and its improving international stature is evident from its salami-slicing tactics at the border. Nonetheless, continuous dialogue is important for chalking out an apparent de-escalation and subsequent de-induction. The long-term trajectory of India and China's bilateral relation depends on the restoration of peace and tranquility at the borders. As this flare-up has broken down all the previous border consultation and cooperation mechanisms, there is a need for a new framework to accurately and jointly define the LAC.
Varied historical perception of the LAC of both nations is the basis of the current conflict. While that remains intact, the recent development is positive, which makes the current outlook less tense than what it has been in the past months. Given the current dynamics, the process of ironing out the differences in the Sino-Indian orbit is rather challenging and many strategic dilemmas. Only the developments over the next few months will put forward a clear fate of this relation.
Harshita Kanodia is a recent economics graduate of the University of Delhi, India. She is currently working as a research intern at “HERMES” Institute of International Affairs, Security & Geoeconomy. She was also a member of the National Team of UN75 Consultations, where she actively shaped public discourse around issues like Climate Change and Global Governance. Her previous research work include: Sino-Indian Border Conflict, India’s Maritime Diplomacy in the Indian Ocean, India’s Arab Policy and Rethinking Brazil’s role in BRICS organization. The views contained in this article are the author’s alone and do not represent the views of “HERMES” Institute of International Affairs, Security & Geoeconomy.
 Harshita Kanodia, “Sino-Indian Border Conflict” (Occasional Paper, HERMES Institute of International Affairs, Security & Geoeconomy, January 2021), 20-21.
 Arunima, “China Insists India Withdraw Troops from Pangong Tso’s South Bank First before PLA Pulls Back Soldiers,” News18, January 25, 2021, https://www.news18.com/news/india/india-china-ladakh-border-standoff-pangong-tso-southern-bank-troops-withdraw-3338594.html.
 Kanodia, “Sino-Indian Border Conflict, 16-17.
 Suhasini Haidar, “Must Prioritise Returning to Status Quo Ante, Says Shyam Saran | The Hindu in Focus Podcast,” The Hindu, February 20, 2021, https://www.thehindu.com/podcast/must-prioritise-returning-to-status-quo-ante-says-shyam-saran-the-hindu-in-focus-podcast/article33890153.ece.
 Krishn Kaushik, “Explained: What Is the New Disengagement Agreement in Eastern Ladakh?,” The Indian Express, February 18, 2021, https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/india-china-ladakh-disengagement-pangong-tso-explained-7184040/.
 Syed Ata Hasnain, “The Decision of China and India to Disengage Should Be Seen as a First Step to Ending Hostilities,” The Indian Express, February 12, 2021. https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/india-china-border-standoff-ladakh-lac-7184783/.
“Map of the Eight Fingers,” Fast Mail News, accessed February 28, 2021, https://www.fastmailnews.com/page/detailnews/india-re-captured-finger-4-hill-again/83831.
 Rahul Singh. “‘De-Escalation in Ladakh Still a Long Way Off’: General Naravane,” Hindustan Times, February 24, 2021, https://www-hindustantimes-com.cdn.ampproject.org/v/s/www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/deescalation-in-ladakh-still-a-long-way-off-general-naravane-101614174743801-amp.html?amp_gsa=1&_js_v=a6&usqp=mq331AQFKAGwASA%3D.
 Ananth Krishnan, “How China’s Media Is Covering the Border Crisis | The Hindu in Focus Podcast,” The Hindu, February 24, 2021, https://www.thehindu.com/podcast/how-chinas-media-is-covering-the-border-crisis-the-hindu-in-focus-podcast/article33925213.ece.