Amid the prospect of a typically harsh winter in Ladakh, signs of a thaw are in the air. India and China have moved a step closer towards resolving the protracted border standoff that has seen hand-to-hand clashes and firing of gunshots, besides fatalities on both sides. The two armies have broadly agreed on a three-step process of disengagement of troops and withdrawal of weaponry from all major friction points — in a time-bound manner. The potential breakthrough comes two months after the Moscow meeting at which External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi had finalised a five-point roadmap to defuse tensions in eastern Ladakh. India has all along been insisting on the restoration of the status quo ante that had existed in April. Notwithstanding its brazen incursions, China has gone to the extent of blaming India for the flare-up of hostilities and even invoked the ‘unilaterally defined’ 1959 LAC to justify its indefensible actions. To its credit, India has managed to receive support from the US and the international community at large in the face of China’s no-holds-barred aggression.
China has been notorious for cocking a snook at past agreements, making it difficult for India to believe that the neighbour will walk the talk, as and when an actionable plan is formalised. Such a pact should be applicable to the entire LAC, including the fiercely disputed Depsang plains. The probability of China using the de-escalation exercise as a ruse to distract Indian troops is not ruled out. The key to effective disengagement will be to ensure simultaneity of the process. Once the removal of troops and equipment is completed and mutually verified, both nations can develop a framework to designate the contentious areas as no-conflict zones.
In his recent address to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which has India among its members, Chinese President Xi Jinping stressed on the historical inevitability of ‘good neighbourliness’ prevailing over a ‘beggar-thy-neighbour’ approach. That’s something China needs to practise itself first if it’s really keen on bridging the trust deficit. Unless there are sustained confidence-building measures, India would have to remain as watchful as ever, if not more.