India and China have agreed to disengage troops and de-escalate tensions that flared this week along their contested border, but analysts say overcoming their differences will not be easy.
The meeting between the foreign ministers of the two countries was held in Moscow on the sidelines of a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
It came days after a fresh confrontation in Ladakh when the Indian army said it occupied hilltops on the south bank of the strategic Pangong Tso Lake as a preemptive measure when it noticed Chinese movements. Concerns about the volatile border deepened after both countries accused each other of firing warning shots for the first time in 45 years – long-standing protocols forbid the use of firearms.
A joint statement Friday issued by India and China after the talks said that both sides agreed that the current situation on the border is not in the interest of either side. The statement said, “They agreed therefore that the border troops of both sides should continue their dialogue, quickly disengage, maintain proper distance and ease tensions.”
At some places, analysts say that troops are deployed less than a kilometer apart.
“It’s very tense, and I stress the word ‘very’ because there are large number of troops massed on both sides, an estimated 40,000-plus,” Jayadeva Ranade, who heads the Center for China Analysis and Strategy in New Delhi, said.
Whether the ice has been broken at the latest round of talks remains to be seen.
“We should be cautiously optimistic about this new agreement but be under no illusions about how difficult it will be to implement. Mistrust among troops along the LAC [line of actual control, the de facto border between the two countries] is greater than it's been in years,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center in Washington.
The military standoff began in May when India accused Chinese troops of crossing into Indian territory at several points along the line of actual control where both sides disagree on where the border stands. The situation escalated sharply in June after 20 Indian soldiers were killed in a clash in the Galwan Valley.
One of the key flashpoints is Pangong Tso Lake, where India says Chinese troops have come into its territory on the north side -- Beijing denies it. India, as a counter, say analysts, occupied key ridges on the south side of the lake last week.
“There used to be a buffer which the two sides used to respect. The Chinese have tried to gain an advantage over India by encroaching on that buffer and India has realized that they also need to have those tactical advantages on the ground if they have to manage China along the border so that has led to this very peculiar situation,” according to Harsh Pant, head of the Strategic Studies Program at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi and professor of international relations at King’s College, London.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his Indian counterpart Subrahmanyam Jaishankar that the "imperative is to immediately stop provocations such as firing and other dangerous actions that violate the commitments made by the two sides," according to a statement by the Chinese Foreign Ministry.
The Indian foreign minister is reported to have told Wang that there should be the restoration of the status quo that existed on the border before the military standoff.
The rhetoric in the run-up to that meeting was sharp -- Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh had said "there should be no doubt" about the country's resolve to protect its territorial integrity. China's Global Times, an arm of Chinese state media, in an editorial said that any talks with India should be paired with "war readiness."
It remains to be seen whether the latest call to maintain peace and tranquility will translate into actions on the ground – talks held to deescalate tensions have not yielded results so far as neither country has backed down from their differing perceptions of their disputed border.
“The Chinese are very insistent that they are in their side of the LAC, they are in their claimed territory. We are equally insistent that they have crossed over and they should go back to where they were,” Ranade said.
That could be a sticking point despite signals by India and China that they want to resolve the crisis. “It will be a tall order for both sides to muster the willingness to stand down, despite the pledges made at the negotiating table,” Kugelman said.
Ties between the two countries have come under severe strain since the border dispute flared – India has banned scores of Chinese apps including the hugely popular TikTok and video game PubG. It has also taken steps to restrict Chinese firms from infrastructure projects since the military standoff.
“Unless the border dispute is managed to the satisfaction of both sides, I don’t see a likelihood of the normalization of the India-China relationship again underscoring that the trust has completely gone,” Pant said.