A welcome end

The India-China face-off in Ladakh is over. Delhi has lessons to learn

New Delhi's threat to cancel External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid's planned visit this week to Beijing appears to have persuaded the Chinese leadership to pull back the military platoon that intruded into Indian territory on April 15. The UPA government must blame itself for the prolonged stand-off in eastern Ladakh. Surprised by the Chinese move into an area claimed by India on the long and contested border, Delhi initially sought to underplay the issue in public and resolve it diplomatically. Beijing, however, cut the room for a compromise by flatly denying its troops were in disputed territory. They demanded major concessions from India, including dismantling of its border military infrastructure, in return for restoring status quo ante. In its eagerness to save Beijing's face, Delhi was losing its own. Delhi's soft-pedalling in the immediate wake of the crisis signalled political weakness amidst the Chinese military's decision to alter the ground reality in a sensitive region of the frontier.

Delhi's threat to call off Khurshid's trip was a risky but necessary move. Such a decision could have escalated the dispute and resulted in the cancellation of the planned visit to India by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang later this month. The visit, the first trip abroad by Li, was heralded in Delhi as one that underlined the new commitment in Beijing to elevate India's importance in China's international calculus. Deferment of that visit would have certainly set back Sino-Indian relations for a long time. But by taking that risk, Delhi has forced a resolution of the crisis.

While India's threat of political retaliation was late in coming, it is not clear at this stage whether Delhi offered significant concessions to get the Chinese to back off. Sunday night's reports simply said both sides agreed to withdraw from the disputed region. Delhi must now come clean and explain to the Indian people the terms on which the status quo ante has been restored. If India has agreed to pull down the structures it has already put up or stop the upgrade of its military infrastructure which began in response to China's own modernisation the political cost of this settlement will be a lot higher than a potential confrontation with Beijing. Delhi has a long tradition of negotiating the boundary dispute with China in secret and keeping most of the government, let alone the public, in the dark. The UPA must now present a full report on the disturbing state of affairs on the China border, the reasons for unacceptable delays in the modernisation of India's border infrastructure and how it plans to overcome the current lethargy in managing the disputed frontiers.

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