The 20th meeting of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs (WMCC), which was held via video link late last week, ended with senior Indian and Chinese officials agreeing to hold another round of talks between their military commanders. To the extent that it indicates that the talks process has not run aground completely, it is a positive outcome. Eight rounds of talks have already taken place and it has been a month since Indian and Chinese corps commanders had met at the negotiating table.
There was understandable concern whether the two sides had given up on talks. The WMCC meeting’s announcement of the ninth round of talks between corps commanders “at an early date” indicates that the talks process is not dead as yet. The immediate objective of the ongoing talks is to achieve “early and complete disengagement of troops along the LAC in accordance with the existing bilateral agreements and protocols, and fully restore peace and tranquillity.”
However, the process is moving extremely slowly. While officials drag their feet, soldiers are suffering in the extreme cold at the frontlines. With the talks stalemated, the window of opportunity for disengagement of troops from the LAC has closed for now. Our soldiers will have to endure the terrible Himalayan winter for several months.
Although there have been no violent face-offs between the Indian and Chinese armed forces along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) for several weeks, acrimonious exchanges continue between officials. Just a few days ago, the Indian and Chinese foreign ministry spokespersons engaged in a war of words, accusing each other of triggering the current standoff. It is disheartening that after several rounds of negotiations, including talks between their defence and foreign ministers, the two sides remain preoccupied with the blame game that we saw in the early weeks of the face-off. That we are still talking, though it appears that we are stuck where we were in June during the face-off in Galway Valley, is cold comfort, literally, for thousands of Indian soldiers deployed in the icy heights.
Certainly, the issues involved are not easy to address. As External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar recently said, India-China relations have been “significantly damaged” this year and India’s relationship with Beijing is in its “most difficult phase” in several decades. A stalemate at the talks table is not in the best interest of either side, especially with thousands of troops on either side facing off each other along the LAC in harsh conditions. China’s strategy is to tire out India. New Delhi must keep pushing Beijing to talk and resolve the conflict quickly.