New Delhi’s foreign policy establishment finally has a reason to smile with the successful mutual disengagement of troops from India and Chinese from the strategic Gogra post area in eastern Ladakh.
After a series of setbacks to Indian interests in its immediate neighbourhood, the disengagement in Gogra Post appears to be the proverbial silver lining in an otherwise gloomy prognosis for the country’s immediate future in international relations. This, particularly so in the context of Afghanistan which is perceived to be slipping away from India’s circle of friendly countries, following the re-emergence of the Taliban.
Contrary to fears that China would be reluctant to disengage from Gogra Post, after its withdrawal from Galwan Valley a few months ago, on August 4 and 5 the People’s Liberation Army troops wound up their presence in the area fully. Indian troops too backed off from the contentious area.
The area of disengagement, called Patrol Point 17A (PP17A) is to the north of the Karakoram range of mountains, which in turn is to the north of Pangong lake, and southeast of Galwan Valley. Gogra Post, as also the nearby patrolling point at Hot Springs are reportedly close to two politically fragile provinces of China – Tibet and Xinjiang.
The standoff started in May 2020, when China diverted its troops who were on a routine military exercise in the Tibet area to four patrolling points in eastern Ladakh.
At these four points, in Galwan valley, Pangong Tso, Hot Springs and Gogra Post, Indian and Chinese troops found themselves almost physically facing each other, causing enormous friction.
The Galwan disengagement (in PP14) happened in July 2020, while Pangong Tso saw a mutual withdrawal in February this year. A partial disengagement also reportedly took place at Hot Springs (PP15) at the time. What remains is disengagement in Depsang Plains.
The Gogra withdrawal signals a significant thaw in the frosty relationship between the two giant Asian neighbours, marked by the lowest point in June 2020 when 20 Indian and four Chinese troops were killed in a violent clash during the process of disengagement in Galwan valley.
The clash, which did not involve any firearms, queered the pitch in the otherwise robust relationship between the two countries. Since then ties have only gone downhill with the Narendra Modi government erecting obstacles to Chinese investments in India, banning Chinese apps and scrutinising companies with Chinese connections.
The latest disengagement at Gogra is a turning point, even more than the previous Galwan and Pangong Tso withdrawals, as it indicates that there is a definitive mood in both countries to reduce tensions along the border. It also means that complete disengagement in eastern Ladakh along the remaining friction points should happen sooner than later.
Given that the two are neighbours, attached to each other’s hips in a Siamese twin-like bonding, festering tensions could prove adverse to their interests. Provoking each other on the border, as the Chinese may have realised, has not produced anything tangibly positive for either of the two.
For China, already at loggerheads with its neighbours in the South China Sea including Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines antagonising India too could have only served a limited purpose. By encroaching on territory claimed by India as its own, the Xi Jinping government could at most irritate New Delhi but not achieve anything more.
It is likely that the aggressive dispensation of Xi Jinping decided to create issues on the border with India to express its resentment at New Delhi’s increasingly sharp tilt towards the West, particularly the United States. Beijing may have wanted to pressure India to go slow on its involvement with the US-led Quad countries that is widely perceived as a group that has been constructed to try stall China’s allegedly expansionist goals in the Asia-Pacific region.
Though the US has made it clear that the Quad is not a body equivalent to the NATO, or a newer form of a military alliance, the new grouping has become an irritant for China since its reactivation by the previous Donald Trump administration.
The other, older, sticking point for China has been that India is the only nation in the Asian sub-continent that has refused to join its flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Moreover, the Chinese government must have assessed the overall outcome of its border entanglement with India over the last year and decided to let go of its belligerent veneer and restore the status quo in what had previously been a thriving relationship.
Right through the border flare-up in eastern Ladakh, it has not been clear what China hoped to gain from claiming territory in the region. The only other possibility for the stand-off on the border in China’s long-standing discomfort in the Ladakh region, bordering Tibet and the Xinjiang region.
The Chinese have historically suffered from intense insecurity over its hold on Tibet. Its strategic vision allows for the possibility of Indian meddling in that sensitive area, especially on the Ladakh side.
In the past, therefore, China had even made an offer to India to settle the border dispute by agreeing to give up territory on the Arunachal Pradesh side in return for regularising its existing claims in the Ladakh region. This would give China a bigger buffer between India and Tibet and protect its restive Xinjiang province, which has seen an uprising by the Uighur Muslims, leading to mass internment among other things.
Though, as the saying goes, one swallow does not signify spring the Gogra disengagement indicates there is no reason why the other sticking points cannot be resolved similarly.