Differences between India and China on the disengagement process along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) spilled into the open on Friday, with New Delhi calling on Beijing to “sincerely implement” all understandings on troop withdrawals reached by senior military commanders of the two sides.
The issue figured in a nearly three-hour meeting of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination (WMCC) on border affairs, which reviewed the situation in the border areas and the disengagement process in the western sector of the LAC.
The Indian side sent a “strong message” on the need for the Chinese side to deliver on commitments regarding the withdrawal of forces at friction points on the LAC, people familiar with developments said on condition of anonymity.
A statement from the external affairs ministry said the two sides agreed “it was necessary for both sides to sincerely implement the understandings reached between senior [military] commanders in their meetings till date”.
The two sides also agreed another meeting of the corps commanders “may be held soon so as to work out further steps to ensure expeditiously complete disengagement and de-escalation” along the LAC, the statement added.
The people cited above said another meeting of the corps commanders is expected to be held next week but no dates have been finalised as yet. The fourth and most recent meeting of the generals from the two sides was held on July 14, with marathon discussions continuing till early morning the next day.
The Indian side at the WMCC meeting, the fourth engagement at the diplomatic level since the border standoff emerged into the open, focused on the need for China to completely withdraw its forces from key friction points in Ladakh sector in keeping with commitments made at the meetings of the corps commanders and the July 5 phone conversation between the two Special Representatives on the border issue, the people said.
The main problem areas continue to be the presence of Chinese troops at Pangong Lake and Depsang plains, the people said. While there has been some pullback by Chinese forces at Hot Springs and Gogra, this was not in line with the understandings reached so far and more needs to be done, the people added.
The Chinese readout on the WMCC meeting, issued in Beijing in Mandarin, referred to “positive progress made by the frontline border defence forces of the two countries to disengage and ease the situation on the ground”.
It said the two sides will “maintain bilateral military and diplomatic dialogues and consultations in accordance with the important consensus reached by the two foreign ministers and Special Representatives on border issues, properly handle remaining issues on the ground, and promote further cooling of the border situation”.
The Chinese readout also spoke of the two sides continuing meetings of WMCC and the corps commanders to “strengthen the building of confidence” and “jointly maintain peace and tranquillity in the border areas”.
However, the people cited above disagreed with the Chinese side’s characterisation of the troop withdrawals as “positive”.
The Indian statement also noted the two sides had “agreed that early and complete disengagement of the troops along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and de-escalation from India-China border areas in accordance with bilateral agreement and protocols and full restoration of peace and tranquillity was essential for smooth overall development of bilateral relations”.
Such a complete disengagement will also be “in accordance with the agreement reached between the two Special Representatives (SRs) during their telephonic conversation on July 5”, the statement said.
Experts believe the troop withdrawal has virtually stalled because the Chinese side has dug in at key points along the LAC.
Sameer Patil, fellow for international security studies at Gateway House, said it would be very difficult to predict the next moves by China. “It is possible the Chinese side is not withdrawing as a reaction to economic and other actions taken by India. Even the Indian ban on Chinese apps has been backed by other countries and India has been able to mobilise global support on the issue of China’s aggressive actions,” he said.
“For now, India has the option of waiting and watching, or escalating by mounting pressure at places where it has an advantage. But as defence minister Rajnath Singh pointed out, this will be a prolonged process,” Patil added.
(With inputs from Rahul Singh)