By Anjana Pasricha
NEW DELHI – Artillery and tanks have rolled back, and Chinese and Indian soldiers have retreated from along the banks of Pangong Tso, a strategic Himalayan lake that straddles their border.
It is the biggest push to ease tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbors since Indian accusations of Chinese transgressions into its territory and a deadly clash in June led to a huge nine-month military build-up along their Himalayan border.
Announcing the “smooth” completion of the disengagement process, a joint news release by both sides called it a “significant step forward.”
But analysts caution that the troop withdrawal from Pangong Lake represents only a start of a potentially long process as soldiers from both sides remain massed along several other stretches of the Himalayan border.
“It’s a first step, a tentative step,” according to Jayadeva Ranade at Center for China Analysis and Strategy in New Delhi. “It is aimed at defusing the tension which exists particularly at this point around Pangong.”
Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh told parliament earlier this month that other disputes remain to be resolved along the border known as the line of actual control, or LAC.
“There are still some outstanding issues with regard to deployment and patrolling at some other points along the LAC,” the minister said. “We will focus on these in future discussions.”
The most contentious dispute centers on a large strategic plateau of over 900 kilometers known as the Depsang Plains where the two Asian giants have also deployed a significant number of troops, according to analysts.
Following the disengagement at Pangong, negotiations on pulling back from three other so-called “friction points” where troops are still in close proximity have begun between military commanders. In the joint statement, the two countries said they will “push for a mutually acceptable resolution of the remaining issues in a steady and orderly manner, so as to jointly maintain peace and tranquility in the border areas.”
Analysts warn however that the negotiations will not be easy as the months-long standoff has significantly damaged ties, particularly in the wake of the brutal clash last June in which 20 Indian and four Chinese soldiers were killed. While India said the standoff was triggered by Chinese intrusions into its territory, Beijing denied that its troops had transgressed the LAC and accused Indian border guards of provocative behavior.
“I would say that we will have to rebuild the relationship rather than take what existed forward,” according to Ranade. “The main point is what did the Chinese hope to achieve by their action, what was their intention? Certainly, those will be factors in the minds of the Indian planners and will ensure that we will be vigilant in future for Chinese actions.”
While the territorial differences between the Asian rivals may continue to simmer, economic ties could revive faster, according to analysts. Over the last two decades, India and China had put border disputes on the backburner and focused on building economic ties — in 2019, China emerged as India’s top trading partner with trade topping US$90 billion.
But the recent military standoff gave those ties a jolt. India has permanently blocked 59 Chinese apps, including hugely popular ones such as Tik Tok, and put barriers to Chinese investment in sensitive sectors. The government announced initiatives to boost local manufacturing aimed at reducing reliance on Chinese imports. A leading traders organization vowed to boycott Chinese goods amid a burst of nationalist sentiment.
In the wake of the recent disengagement, trade experts in New Delhi expect the rhetoric to cool down and trade ties to get a boost.
“We have got really economically entangled with China just like most major economies,” points out Biswajit Dhar a trade anaylst and professor at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. “Suddenly trying to move out of the Chinese ambit would be costly for India.”
Chinese goods, from mobile phones to ordinary household goods, continue to flood Indian markets.
Many Indian industries such as pharmaceuticals and solar power remain critically dependent on Chinese components. More significantly, Indian exports to China grew last year.
“Indian industry is now looking at China as a market and China has offered India the market,” says Dhar underlining that there is a push to keep trade ties intact with Beijing. “Earlier the push came only from sectors dependent on imports from China. Now there are sectors like steel and others who are dependent on markets in China. So, there is going to be a substantially large constituency in India which will be seeking normalization of relations with China.”
That means in the coming year political and economic ties between Asia’s two biggest countries could take divergent paths.