India and China have committed to “quickly disengage” troops on the Himalayan border to reduce the risk of further conflict.
The agreement was reached in talks between S. Jaishankar, India’s foreign minister, and Wang Yi, his Chinese counterpart, in Moscow, days after the two countries accused each other of firing the first shots along the frontier in 45 years.
“The current situation in the border areas is not in the interest of either side,” a joint statement issued early on Friday morning said. “Border troops of both sides should continue their dialogue, quickly disengage, maintain proper distance and ease tensions.”
They also agreed that troops should “avoid any action that could escalate matters”.
India and China have massed tens and thousands of troops and heavy weaponry in their disputed border zone in the inhospitable terrain of Ladakh, where longstanding protocols over the area’s management have broken down since May.
In June, 21 Indian soldiers were killed in a brawl that also claimed an unknown number of Chinese casualties in the strategically significant Galwan Valley. Tensions have surged higher in recent weeks, as both sides have jockeyed for advantageous positions in the once quiet, and lightly manned, line of actual control.
Analysts said the agreement appeared to be a first step towards de-escalation. But they warned that it had to be followed up with swift action to separate soldiers who were just hundreds of metres apart.
“The bottom line is we have to see what happens on the ground,” said Vipin Narang, a professor in the strategic studies programme of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“Until there is physical disengagement on the ground, you could still get an accident that forces one or both sides into a conflict that they don’t want.”
Defence analyst Sushant Singh, a former military officer, said the length of the talks, which lasted two-and-a-half hours, and the joint statement were encouraging.
“Lines of communication are open and have not broken down,” said Mr Singh.
But Vishnu Prakash, a retired Indian diplomat who served in China, was pessimistic about the prospects of disengagement, saying the joint statement had little of substance.
“Chinese do not seem to have agreed to restore status quo ante. There are no timelines. The understanding on quick disengagement is vague at best. It will be a miracle if these commitments are honoured,” Mr Prakash tweeted.
Ladakh’s looming winter — when temperatures can fall to below -40C — will also pose a particular challenge to the two armies. In previous winters, New Delhi and Beijing maintained only a small number of troops in the area.
“If India and China dig in for the long haul and these forces are forced to be forward deployed for the winter, that comes at a heavy toll to both sides,” Mr Narang said.
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