India-China disengagement at Pangong Tso does not mean deescalation
This article first appeared in CNBC TV-18 on February 22, 2021 and can be accessed here.
As the Lunar New Year celebrations wind down, people are finally heading back to work and beginning the year. One particular region of interest to Indians is the Line of Actual Control (LAC), which has caused the highest tensions between India and China in half a century.
It began right before New Year when the Chinese government started withdrawing troops, tanks, and artillery from Finger 4 of Pangong Tso and both sides retreated to the positions they had occupied in April 2020. After the few days it took to disengage at Pangong, the 10th round of Corps Commander talks were held on Saturday and reportedly went on for 16 hours, where disengagement at other parts of the LAC like Gogra, Hot Springs, and Depsang are supposedly being discussed.
The Indian government narrative describes this pullback as a success for India's steadfastness and diplomacy. The Print quoted Northern Army Commander Lt Gen YK Joshi saying, "The fact is that it is a huge success for us. First, PLA is moving back beyond our claim line, that is Finger 8. Second, this agreement denies them the advantage of patrolling till Finger 4. In fact, the PLA will not be carrying out any activity, military or otherwise, in the areas claimed by us. Third, they will be restoring the entire landform within our claim line and dismantling all the structures that were created post-April 2020. Hence, the realities have to be understood in the correct perspective."
Amid the disengagement process, for the first time, the Chinese government released their number of casualties, saying that they did not do so during the crisis to avoid stoking flames. China's official narrative, enunciated by the Defense Ministry spokesperson, is that India instigated the violence and and China is the responsible power in the situation. While this is typical of the Chinese Communist Party's narrative, what is interesting is that the videos released by the government have gone viral on social media and even trended on Sina Weibo. Ananth Krishnan of The Hindu points out that, "That [the hashtag] was shared by some of the most popular Chinese celebrities including singer Hua Chenyu, who shared the message with his 39 million followers. The popular pop group TFBoys did the same to its 21 million followers, adding a message of thanks to the PLA soldiers. By the end of Friday, the hashtag had 1.6 billion views and generated more than 1.7 million posts."
The outpouring of national sentiment is a tactic that governments across the world use to convince their citizens of their skill in dealing with a difficult situation. However, there remain multiple questions about why the Chinese chose to engage after nine months of the stand-off. One option is the Indian policy of refusing to normalise economic and people-to-people ties until the border issue is resolved. Another could be the long months of harsh winters that have led to undeclared deaths by both sides. The third could be that the crisis has led to India strengthening its ties with other countries. One particular point of note is that the Quad Ministerial Meeting took place in the same week. China is worried that India will move even closer to the United States and be used in a larger containment strategy. Finally, some analysts argue that China is anticipating problems elsewhere (possibly in Taiwan) and favors deescalating now rather than later.
While these are all possibilities, it is essential to note that this disengagement at Pangong Tso is only one instance and needs to happen across other parts of the border, which could be even trickier. There is also no guarantee that China is not reinforcing its position elsewhere like it did in the aftermath of the Doklam crisis. As China grows more and more powerful, it is unwilling to lose face and, therefore, wants to show its strength. As Doklam and the Galwan crises indicate, flare-ups along the border will become the norm rather than the exception. Against this backdrop, the Indian government will have to consider a comprehensive policy to deal with this ever-present source of tension at its borders.