A one-sentence statement from China’s Ministry of National Defense on Feb. 10 announced a simultaneous disengagement of Indian and Chinese forces at Pangong Lake on their disputed border. Ten days later, the disengagement was complete, with a buffer zone separating troops on the lake’s northern bank.
The disengagement may be a sign of easing tensions along part of the India-China border dispute known as the western sector. Also called Ladakh or Aksai Chin, this area comprises roughly 12,7000 square miles (excluding areas of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir that India also claims as part of this sector). In multiple areas, China and India hold conflicting views of where the Line of Actual Control (LAC) lies, which creates numerous smaller disputes within the larger territorial conflict.
Last April, China moved its forces up to its view of the LAC in several areas, including the Galwan Valley, Gorga/Hot Springs and the northern bank of Pangong Lake, triggering a standoff with India. Initial efforts to disengage forces failed, resulting in a deadly June 15 clash in the Galwan Valley. Thereafter, troops withdrew and a small buffer zone was created, but disengagement in other areas stalled as China refused to vacate the land it had occupied, especially on Pangong Lake’s northern bank.
In August, India altered the bargaining dynamic with a “quid pro quo” operation on the southern side of Pangong Lake, seizing several peaks and passes along the LAC in the Kailash Range, threatening Chinese forces below. With this move, India gained leverage on the ground that it had previously lacked. Subsequent rounds of talks between military commanders in the fall appeared to revolve over which side would withdraw first, with India holding firm it would not do so.
Why February’s disengagement is significant
The separation of the two military forces reduces the odds of significant military escalation. India’s move onto the high ground in August prompted Chinese countermoves and new tensions as each side sought to consolidate its positions. For the first time in decades, shots were fired along the LAC. Tanks were deployed to within only a few hundred yards of each other. Each side deployed as many as 50,000 troops in the areas behind the LAC.
On the northern bank of Pangong Lake, India and China also agreed to withdraw to their permanent bases and to cease patrolling up to the other side’s view of the LAC. This created a buffer zone about four miles long, and should reduce opportunities for future clashes.
And the disengagement and buffer zone creates space for further talks. In the short term, discussions have already begun to address disengagement in other “friction areas” such as Gorga/Hot Springs. Longer term, political talks about the border may be possible if a complete de-escalation occurs.
Why did China agree?
The disengagement occurred because China appeared to alter its negotiating position. Previously, China had demanded that India first withdraw from its new positions on the Kailash Range before China would move from the northern bank of Pangong Lake. The deadlock began to break in late November, when China agreed to pull back to a position known as Finger 8, satisfying an Indian demand, but was not finalized until late January. Why did China change its position?
China appears to have calculated that the political costs of a long-term military standoff with India had now become too high. As I show in recent testimony, China’s assessment of its international environment now emphasizes what Xi Jinping describes as “profound changes unseen in a century” that are associated with power shifts, rapid technological change, decaying global governance and populism. Although this assessment sees a favorable “rising East, declining West,” it also highlights greater uncertainty and sources of instability that China must navigate to achieve its ambitious economic goals. Stabilized relations with India will help China achieve these goals whereas continued militarized confrontation would not.
Paralleling the border crisis with India, China’s relations with the United States also declined precipitously in 2020. As my previous research has shown, in its military strategy, China views India as a “secondary strategic direction,” which is less important than the “main strategic direction” of Taiwan and the Western Pacific that involves the United States. As relations with the United States worsened, the urgency for China to repair ties with India increased. China may also view India to be a weak link in the evolving security cooperation known as the “Quad” because India, unlike Australia and Japan, is not a formal U.S. ally.
Toward this end, in a recent phone call with his counterpart, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi underscored the desire to improve ties with India and to move beyond the border dispute. Wang said the goal is to “to prevent the bilateral relations from falling into a negative cycle” because the border dispute is “not the whole story of China-India relations.”
The People’s Liberation Army revealed new martyrs
As if to signal the end of this phase of the dispute, the Chinese military broke its silence regarding casualties from the June clash. In a front-page article in the PLA Daily, the Chinese military newspaper, a detailed account of the fighting highlighted five soldiers and officers decorated for their gallantry, four of whom died in the clash. This unleashed a torrent of commentary on Chinese social media about the “fallen heroes” and a trending hashtag, “They died for us.”
By allowing the public to vent over the deaths of the soldiers, China may have tried to deflect attention from the concession it made to India or that it bowed to Indian pressure. At the same time, China ensured that the discussion of the “martyrs” remained within social media, as their story was not part of the national evening newscast, and appeared as an abbreviated report on page 6 of the People’s Daily.
What’s next? The military agreement to disengage forces is a significant development, but much more work remains to bring about a complete de-escalation in the eastern sector. Nevertheless, this is an important first step.
M. Taylor Fravel (@fravel) is Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor in the department of political science and director of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.