India-China Border Standoff: Did China Trick India Into Giving Away Advantageous Position Near Pangong Lake?

Two months after India and China disengaged around the Pangong Tso in Eastern Ladakh and ‘ending’ the border standoff, talks have not progressed between Indian and Chinese corps commander to end tensions at other friction points.

This raises the suspicion of whether it was China’s ploy to make India give up its tactical advantage in the region.

Despite India’s demand that the disengagement process include the entire region, and that the troops go back to their April 2020 positions, China only agreed to a disengagement around the Pangong Tso, a lake spanning both sides of the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

It was probably the only place where the Indian army outwitted the PLA during the 10-month-long border standoff.

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In August last year, Indian troops had been able to occupy peaks south of the lake which had till then been unoccupied. These areas included critical areas such as Magar Hill, Mukhpari, Gurung Hill, Rezang La, and Rechin La.

This allowed India to wrest control over Spanggur Gap, a two-km wide valley that has previously been used by China to launch an offensive in 1962. The position also gave India a direct view of China’s Moldo Garrison on the north-western tip of Spanggur Tso.

While India dominated south of the lake, Chinese troops had been occupying territories 8km west of the LAC at the northern half. Last May, PLA came up to the height called Finger 4 from its base at Finger 8.

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While India believes LAC passes through Finger 8, China believes it to pass through Finger 4. After the Indian occupation of the peaks south of the lake in August, India was also able to re-position its troops on the northern bank over peaks that had a tactical view of Chinese positions, according to The Indian Express.

It could be said that by September, India had an advantage in Pangong Tso, making Chinese troops vulnerable in the area. Thus, China was willing to come to the negotiating table to restore the status quo around the lake.

Initially, China had tried negotiating a disengagement which required Indian troops to vacate the southern posts while letting Chinese troops patrol till Finger 5. Indian rejection had made China try re-negotiating the deal.

In November, it had proposed that it will fall back to its post in Finger 8 while India can remain in Finger 3 if a similar reversion back to the status quo is followed in the southern portion of the lake. In hindsight, it seemed like China would rather have India vacate the southern part of the lake than maintain its incursion in the northern part.

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India agreed to the deal on January 24 during the 9th round of the China-India Corps Commander Level Meeting. Defense Minister Rajnath Singh had said in Parliament on February 11 that “both sides will remove the forward deployment in a phased, coordinated and verified manner”.

The area between Finger 3 and Finger 8 was to be a no-patrolling zone temporarily till further consensus could be reached.

But it is important to note that other friction points, such as Depsang Plains, Hot Springs and Gogra, were not part of the agreement. While India gave up its edge, China clung to its advantages.

B.R. Deepak, a professor of Chinese and China Studies at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University told South China Morning Post, “It appears India was in a hurry to declare ‘victory’ by making China ‘withdraw’ from the finger areas [of Pangong Tso].”

An Indian official had told The Times of India in February that “initial steps are positive on both the north and south banks of Pangong Tso but it will be a long haul in the sequential disengagement, de-escalation, and de-induction process, with the progress being monitored and verified at every stage.”

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Two months later, these hopes have turned to dust. During the 11th round of talks between corps commanders of both countries on April 9, China showed unwillingness to discuss disengagement in other friction points along the LAC.

EurAsian Times’s Nitin J Ticku had also stated that China has not lessened its deployment of troops and weapons at the border in light of increased QUAD engagement between states hostile to Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific.

Vikram Misri, the Indian ambassador to China, had stated that there was “a tendency in some quarters to sweep this situation under the carpet and characterize it as just a minor issue and a matter of perspective.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin had replied by stating that India and China should “focus on the bigger picture of long-term development of bilateral relations”.

These statements seem to confirm that the present stalemate would continue. India seems to have lost its tactical trump card which could have forced China to agree to further disengagement.