In the first sign that India and China are deescalating tensions along their disputed border, both sides have agreed to a “disengagement process” and pulled back troops from the site of a clash that killed 20 Indian soldiers in mid June.
However analysts warn that resolving differences that have flared at different contested zones in the Himalayan ranges still pose a massive challenge and even though the eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation between their troops may end, the massive military deployment by the Asian rivals could continue.
“It is going to be a live border for a long time because the Indian army cannot any longer afford to lower its guard,” said Bharat Karnad, a strategic affairs analyst at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.
The decision by the Asian giants to reduce tensions in Ladakh followed a call between Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Sunday.
This is the second time the two countries have announced a disengagement — a similar step initiated in June collapsed days later when a deadly clash erupted between Indian and Chinese soldiers resulting in the worst border violence in five decades.
Troops from both countries have moved back nearly two kilometers from the Galwan Valley to create a “buffer zone” and the Chinese have dismantled structures and tents erected in the area, Indian officials, who did not want to be quoted, have said.
The pullback was reported after an Indian foreign ministry statement on Monday said both sides had agreed to “complete the disengagement process expeditiously” and work together to “avoid any incident in the future that could disturb peace and tranquility in border areas."
The Chinese Foreign Ministry also said progress had been made in measures for troops to disengage.
However, Beijing has not given up the recent claims to the Galwan Valley, which India says is its territory.
“The right and wrong of what happened at Galway valley is very clear,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Monday. “China will continue firmly safeguarding our territorial sovereignty as well as peace and tranquillity in the border areas.”
Besides Galwan Valley, the two sides are embroiled in disputes along at least three other points in eastern Ladakh, where New Delhi has accused Beijing of transgressing into its territory — China has denied it.
“The Chinese have built up a lot of physical facilities and structures in these areas. Are they going to give it up? I don’t think so,” says Karnad. “I am not sure there is going to be restoration of status quo ante. That is not going to happen.”
Of particular concern to strategists is the Pangong Tso Lake, where India says Chinese troops have come about eight kilometers into its territory. A brawl that injured several soldiers from both sides in early May set off the current tensions between the Asian rivals and demands from New Delhi that Beijing restore the status quo along the border.
There are concerns that Pangong Tso Lake will continue to remain a flashpoint.
Last week, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited troops posted in Ladakh and said his country's commitment to peace should not be seen as a sign of weakness and the army stood ready to defend the country. Without referring to China, he also said “the era of expansionism is over.”
Analysts say plummeting trust between the Asian rivals will pose a challenge to not just resolving their border disputes but also repairing their damaged ties.
In an editorial, the Indian Express newspaper welcomed the de-escalation as a step in the right direction but pointed out that now the “hard slog is here: ensuring China keeps its commitment to peace and tranquillity in the border area.”