After the disengagement of Indian and Chinese troops in Ladakh, the Samarkand SCO Summit springs a welcome surprise
India and China on 8 September announced a disengagement of their forces from Patrolling Point-15 (PP-15) in the Gogra-Hotsprings of East Ladakh where troops of the two countries have been locked in a confrontational position since April 2020 when the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) occupied positions in five areas thereby blocking Indian troops from patrolling up to their claim line. The defining incident of the 2020 conflict was the clash between the two armies in Galwan that resulted in the loss of 20 Indian and an unclear number of Chinese troops. It impacted bilateral relations deeply, and the strain between New Delhi and Beijing has persisted ever since. While China has been suggesting that the two sides de-link issues relating to the border from relations in other areas, India has been firm that there can be no normalization in relations unless the 2020 situation is restored.
The disengagement at PP-15, which follows earlier similar disengagements in the Galwan Valley in 2020 and Pangong Tso in 2021, represents another step towards restoring the status quo as of April-May 2020. With the breakthrough at PP-15 coming just days before the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit in Samarkand on 16 September which both Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping were scheduled to attend and come face to face for the first time since 2019, the expectation was built up in the media that the positivity of the disengagement process would result in a bilateral meeting between the two leaders that would signal the beginning of a thaw in relations. Samarkand, however, had a different but equally welcome surprise to offer.
The PP-15A disengagement was announced through a Joint Statement. It said, “On 8th September 2022, according to the consensus reached in the 16th round of India China Corps Commander Level Meeting, the Indian and Chinese troops in the area of Gogra-Hotsprings (PP-15) have begun to disengage in a coordinated and planned way, which is conducive to the peace and tranquility in the border areas”. The 16th Corps Commander Level talks were held on 17 July at the Chushul-Moldo border meeting point on the Indian side. The disengagement at PP-15 is believed to have resulted in the creation of a buffer zone of 2-4 km, as was done in the previous disengagements. With PP-15, the forces of the two countries have disengaged at all friction points in the region, although other contentious issues related to the boundary still remain between the two countries and Chinese forces have still blocked access to traditional patrolling areas of Indian forces on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Depsang Plains and Charding Nala regions. Both sides remain heavily deployed in Ladakh.
Describing the agreement on disengagement at PP-15, India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said that “The two sides have agreed to cease forward deployments in this area in a phased, coordinated and verified manner, resulting in the return of the troops of both sides to their respective areas. It has been agreed that all temporary structures and other allied infrastructure created in the area by both sides will be dismantled and mutually verified. The landforms in the area will be restored to pre-stand-off period by both sides. The agreement ensures that the LAC in this area will be strictly observed and respected by both sides, and that there will be no unilateral change in status quo”. It added, “with the resolution of stand-off at PP-15, both sides mutually agreed to take the talks forward and resolve the remaining issues along LAC and restore peace and tranquility in border areas”.
China termed the PP-15 agreement as a positive development that “will help facilitate the sound and steady development of bilateral relations”. It said that “The fact that China and India agreed to begin disengagement in the area of Jianan Daban (as China refers to the PP-15 area) is a positive development that is conducive to peace and tranquillity along the border. China is committed to properly handling relevant issues through communication and dialogue”. It, however, expressed disagreement with India’s stand on status quo and Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning told reporters that “China will by no means accept that”. She added that “China and India hold different positions on the border issues. But what is most important now is for both sides to keep up communication and dialogue, make the disengagement a first step and ensure peace and tranquillity along the border”.
With these successful disengagements having been achieved, India would now like to move towards broader de-escalation. Since 2020, around 50-60,000 soldiers along with war-waging equipment are deployed by each side in the region. While disengagement refers to the pulling back of soldiers of the two sides physically locked against each other at a location, de-escalation refers to the broader pulling back of war-waging equipment such as artillery, missiles, and fighter planes deployed in the region, and reserves in the rear. A former Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) of India, Lieutenant General Vinod Bhatia, believes that India “should continue the negotiations at the political, diplomatic and military levels to sort out the outstanding problems in the other two areas. Also, we should not expect results after every round of talks”. Given China’s propensity to violate agreements and repeatedly shift the goalpost, achieving de-escalation may prove to be a time-taking and painstaking endeavour for India.
The timing of the announcement on PP-15 did suggest that both India and China were looking to create conditions that might enable a first bilateral meeting between their leaders in Samarkand after close to three years. Agreeing to such a meeting did, however, came with risks for New Delhi. India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar has repeatedly asserted in recent months that normalcy in ties with China was predicated on normalcy on the border. As Suhasini Haidar and Ananth Krishnan pointed out in their 1 September article in the Indian daily The Hindu, “New Delhi has viewed warily China’s recent attempts to portray ties as ‘normal’ despite the situation at the Line of Actual Control (LAC), a perception that a high-level meet may reinforce. New Delhi reluctantly hosted Foreign Minister Wang Yi in March as he visited the region, but conveyed a strong message that India would not accept China’s demand to keep the border ‘in an appropriate place’ and restore relations. India has since kept up that messaging in public. On Thursday, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) backed the German Ambassador to India’s comments calling China’s claims on Arunachal Pradesh as ‘outrageous’ and its transgressions at the LAC a ‘violation of international law’. Responding to German envoy Phillip Ackerman’s comments, which had generated anger in Beijing, MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said the international community has a ‘proper appreciation’ of India’s stand on boundary issues”.
Modi and Xi eventually did not hold a one-to-one meeting in Samarkand, and neither side has commented much about the matter since then. The meeting on the sidelines of the SCO Summit that did grab international headlines was the one between Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin, more specifically what the former told the latter during it. In his televised opening remarks at the meeting, Modi said to Putin that “Today’s era is not an era of war. We discussed this issue with you on the phone several times, that democracy, diplomacy and dialogue touch the entire world. Today we will get the opportunity to talk about how we can progress on the path of peace. Today the biggest worry before the world, especially developing countries, is food security, fuel security and fertilizers. We must find solutions to these problems and you will also have to consider it. India and Russia have stayed together with each other for several decades. We spoke several times on the phone about India-Russia bilateral relations and various issues. I want to thank Russia and Ukraine for helping us to evacuate our students from Ukraine”. This was the first time that Modi publicly called on Putin to end the war.
Putin, who spoke before Modi, said he knew about India’s position and “concerns” on the Ukraine conflict. He claimed that “We want all of this to end as soon as possible. But... the leadership of Ukraine has... refused to engage in the negotiating process. They said that they want to achieve their objectives... on the battlefield militarily”. On bilateral ties, Putin noted that Russia’s “strategic and privileged partnership with India” was developing very rapidly, and the two sides were actively engaging at international platforms on all key global issues. He added that it was important that “we constantly coordinate our positions”. He further said, “We have constructive relations and our trade is growing. In particular... the supplies of Russian fertilizers to India have grown more than eight-fold... I am hopeful that this is going to be of huge help to the agricultural sector of India”.
Modi’s surprisingly candid advice to Putin, which echoed the long-held Indian position that differences must be resolved through dialogue and discussion and violence must be eschewed, has been widely appreciated. Responding to a question on Modi’s remarks, United States (US) National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters at a White House news conference that what the Prime Minister had said was “a statement of principle on behalf of what he believes is right and just (and) it was very much welcomed by the US… You cannot conquer your neighbour's territory by force. Peace will come fast and most decisively to Ukraine if Russia abandons that effort. And we would like to see every country in the world making that case. They can do it publicly if they like. They can do it privately if they like. But sending that clear and unmistakable message to Moscow at this time is the most vital thing I think we can collectively do to produce peace in that region”. Sullivan concluded that the remark of the Indian leadership, which has longstanding relationships with Moscow, telling Russia that now is the time for war to end, was commendable.
French President Emmanuel Macron in his address to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York asserted that “Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India was right when he said the time is not for war. It is not for revenge against the West, or for opposing the West against the East. It is the collective time for our sovereign equal states to cope together with challenges we face”. UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly underlined in an interview that “Prime Minister Modi has a powerful, influential voice on the world stage. We know the Russian leadership respects India's voice and position on the world stage. I think Prime Minister Modi's intervention is very, very welcome. And we really hope that Vladimir Putin listens to those voices who are calling for peace and for de-escalation. So we very much welcome Prime Minister Modi's intervention”.
The New York Times pointed out that “Mr. Modi’s comments came a day after President Xi Jinping of China – in his first face-to-face meeting with Mr. Putin since the invasion began – struck a far more subdued tone than the Russian president, and steered clear in his public comments of any mention of Ukraine”. With the recent military reverses suffered by Russia in Ukraine, China would be increasingly concerned about its fallout on the larger US-China power play. Mary Ilyushina, writing in the Washington Post, echoed this when she wrote, “Modi’s remark… came a day after Putin acknowledged he had heard ‘concerns and questions’ about the war from Chinese President Xi Jinping at the same conference. Xi, however, did not voice his questions or concerns publicly”. The New York Times also referred to questions about China’s lukewarm support to Russia that were now being raised within Russia. It informed that a newspaper columnist on a Russian talk show on the State-run Rossiya channel had recently “noted that Beijing was ‘not particularly helping us’ in getting around Western sanctions and seemed to be pushing back against Russian influence in Central Asia”. Columnist Maksim Yusin, referring to the extent of China’s potential support for Russia, was quoted as saying, “There is some kind of rather complex game going on here. I don’t think we should get our hopes up much so that we don’t end up sorely disappointed”.
In contrast to the strategy adopted by Xi Jinping, which is propelling him in a direction where neither the West nor Russia remain particularly convinced of his policies or his credibility, Modi’s surprising pro-active move in Samarkand has not only effectively answered and converted those in the West that were suspicious of India’s neutrality on the Ukraine issue, but at the same time also not detracted much from the close relationship that India has traditionally shared with Russia.