The two-front truce must be translated into a two-front peace - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Thursday 4 March 2021

The two-front truce must be translated into a two-front peace

The LoC ceasefire offers New Delhi a unique opportunity to shift the Kashmir dispute away from the border to the negotiating table


By Ajai Shukla

Business Standard, 5th Mar 21


On February 10 and 11 respectively, Beijing and New Delhi announced that their troops would disengage immediately from a 10-month long confrontation near the Pangong Lake in Ladakh. Two weeks later, the Indian and Pakistani armies followed that up with a ceasefire announcement on February 24. In a matter of a fortnight, a worrying two-front conflict that had tied down India was unexpectedly transformed into a two-front truce.


There has been predictable speculation about the extent to which President Joe Biden’s newly-installed administration pushed China and Pakistan to de-escalate tensions with India, or whether these developments stem predominantly from back-channel negotiations between Beijing, New Delhi and Islamabad. Washington officials deny any role, pointing out that their National Security Council is functioning with skeleton staff and has more urgent preoccupations, such as meeting the May 1 deadline for thinning out from Afghanistan. Yet the Biden White House (like the Trump White House) sees Pakistan as a key player in the Afghan peace process and would like Islamabad to allocate policy bandwidth to the Afghan peace process rather than being dissipated in tensions with India. Given that, the Biden administration almost certainly encouraged New Delhi’s and Islamabad’s discussions on a ceasefire, especially given America’s longstanding contacts with Prime Minister Imran Khan’s advisor on national security, Moeed Yusuf.


While any reduction in tensions stemming from ceasefires or troop disengagement are welcome, pragmatists rightly underscore the fragility of such agreements. In Eastern Ladakh, Chinese troops continue to occupy and control territory that Indian troops patrolled until last April. Trust between the Indian Army and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been severely damaged by the PLA’s transgressions across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) – the de facto border based on physical control. New Delhi will not quickly forget the PLA’s effective repudiation of multiple border agreements and confidence building measures (CBMs) dating back to 1993.


Nor would a cautious punter wager much money on the Indo-Pakistan Line of Control (LoC) ceasefire holding indefinitely. Technically, the LoC ceasefire of 2003, committed to by both armies’ Directors General of Military Operations (DsGMO), is still in place, as are two more ceasefire agreements arrived at in 2018. On the ground, however, New Delhi accuses Pakistani troops of opening fire 5,133 times last year – an average of more than 14 violations daily – in which 46 Indians were killed. Islamabad accuses the Indian Army of being even more trigger happy.


Yet, the India-Pakistan LoC ceasefire provides grounds for optimism. At a time of acute Indian vulnerability, when the PLA’s transgressions had forced the Indian Army to switch four divisions (about 75,000 troops) from the Pakistan border to the Sino-Indian LAC, the decision-makers in the Pakistan army’s General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi apparently decided against taking advantage of India’s predicament. Instead, GHQ provided India strategic reassurance through a ceasefire. It should not be forgotten that this was at a time when the numerous Indian strategists were raising the bogey of Pakistani forces advancing southwards into India along the Shyok valley, and linking up with a corresponding Chinese pincer to cut off the Siachen Glacier and the Daulet Beg Oldi sector. 


For multiple reasons, a cease fire on the Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan is far more consequential than one with the PLA on the LAC, despite New Delhi’s repeated assertions that China constitutes India’s primary threat. One reason is that, even after the Indian Army switched four divisions to the LAC, only 14 Indian divisions face China, while 22 remain poised against Pakistan (two more divisions are reserves under AHQ). Furthermore, the sheer volume of firing exchanged on the LoC makes that border far bloodier. The Indian Army links LoC firing levels with insurgency levels in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), since militants use the cover of Pakistani suppressive fire to infiltrate across the LoC. Also, since many more civilians live in the close vicinity of the LoC, firing causes high casualties amongst those border villagers. Finally, across large swathes of the country, the ebb and flow of India-Pakistan tensions resonate far deeper than fluctuations in Sino-Indian relations.


Given that public opinion across both India and Pakistan is conditioned to believe the worst of each other, the LoC ceasefire announcement came as a surprise on both sides of the border. This, even though there were statements from both countries indicating that something was in the works. Speaking at the Pakistan Air Force Academy earlier this month, Pakistan’s army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa declared it was time to extend a “hand of peace in all directions” and for resolving the Kashmir issue in a “dignified and peaceful manner.” Prime Minister Imran Khan, speaking in Colombo a day before the LoC ceasefire was announced, downplayed tensions with India, stating: “Our only dispute is Kashmir and it can only be resolved through dialogue.”


Given the civil-military power dynamics within Pakistan, a ceasefire with India at a time when the Indian military was embroiled in conflict with Pakistan’s “iron brother” China could only have taken place with the express concurrence of that country’s ultimate power broker: General Bajwa. There is ample evidence to believe that Bajwa, like General Pervez Musharraf later in his tenure, holds the conviction that Pakistan cannot prevail indefinitely in a state of conflict with India. Bajwa’s conviction has only been reinforced with the Balakot air strike in February 2019, Delhi’s transformation of J&K state’s political status in August that year, the steady pressure on Pakistan by the Financial Action Task Force in concert with the US, and the Indian military’s steadiness and resolve in standing up to China’s forays across the LAC since April 2020.


The experience of previous ceasefires demonstrates that they can only hold when they are accompanied by high-level political dialogue. The Sino-Indian LAC has remained quiet since the late 1980s because border CBMs have been accompanied by regular dialogue between “joint working groups” and “special interlocuters” from the two countries. The India-Pakistan ceasefire of 2003 held for years because it was buttressed by dialogue between special representatives of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Pervez Musharraf and a clear intention to arrive at a settlement on J&K. To keep the LoC ceasefire alive, therefore, a high-level political engagement must begin between the Indian and Pakistani prime ministers, and their governments. The new Indo-Pakistan ceasefire agreement specifically mandates addressing each other’s core issues and disputes. 


There is little reason for India to shy away: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s hard line policy towards Pakistan and J&K has created numerous leverages and bargaining positions that New Delhi can bring to the bargaining table and translate into concessions. The opening created by a two-front truce must be taken forward into a two-front peace.


  1. Two front truce must be taken forward towards a two front peace. However,
    The fact remeins unaltered. Peace after all is a two way track. First China 8s deceptive, will not give in or atleast regard Indian concerns. China already has framed herself a super power only equal to the USA. She opines that India must take China's supremacy unquestionably, coceding Indian territories to China. The confl7ct is based on undemacrated border. Having such a boarder cannot be consideted by both countries as territories belong to one particular country. China deliberately ignores any resolutions mutually acceptable. Therefore India alone cannot talk about peace.
    Similarly, Pakistan cannot keep on flogging on a dead horse. Kashmir is an integral part of India and Pakistan must accept this fact. However, it is not actually Kashmir that bothers Pakistan. But the partition of Baladesh is yet a humiliating saga, that Pak8stan is unable to get over, and is an indeluble blot in the Pakistani History. Pak8stan has to rid off such history from her mindset. Secondly she has to accept the reality of Kashmir, as an integral part of India. Said that China and Pakistan must work to build the trust and accept India as a power to reckon. Peace, thetefore is a twoway track.

  2. I do not agree with Ajai Shukla's assertion that "Modi’s hard line policy towards Pakistan and J&K has created numerous leverages and bargaining positions". On the contrary, my belief is that Modi's use of the military for domestic political gains, in particular the Balakot airstrike in which India violated Pakistan's air space, was one of the reasons for China's intervention in Ladakh. This is also the view of Pratap Bhanu Mehta (see his article titled "India, Pak, China must build on de-escalation, resist hubris that exults in unilateral triumphalism" in the Indian Express).
    I am one of those who believe that the Biden Administration played a role in the two-front truce, given Chinese and US compulsions to reset relations, and, as pointed out by Ajai Shukla, US compulsions in Afghanistan. However, Pravin Sawhney has a different take, as seen from his article "How India Played into China's Hands on the Border Dispute". Quoting from this article:
    "Through January 2021, numerous media reports had unnerved the Modi government. Showing commercial satellite imagery, these reports spoke of massive PLA war preparedness in Tibet opposite Arunachal Pradesh. With the possibility of a two-front war staring it in the face, the Modi government clearly panicked. [...] Consequently, such was the haste to deescalate, that the Modi government also gave up the only tactical bargaining chip it had in Ladakh – the Kailash range in south Pangong [...]"

    1. Modi hardline in abrogated Art370 to illegal annex J&K and Ladakh, with Amit Shah boasting of occupying China's Arsai Chin in Parliament even with new map to include, Rajnath inauguration of forward attack roads trespassing Nepal right into Arsai Chin border threatening CPEC & only strategic Xinjiang-Tibet HW, US QUAD alliance, and numerous attacks into China's LAC during its COVID crisis lockdown (Feb~Apr2020) leading to May~Jun20 clash, are the main trigger.
      Certainly China new railway for South Tibet and housing for thousands of PLA soldiers in India occupied Assam border has panicked Delhi on another new front that IA has no more resource to cater.

  3. Writer should stay neutral in his analysis instead of lacing it with Hindutva nationalism.

    Modi had already declared nobody entered India's territory, which China's recent released video had proven hundreds of IA crossing river into China's LAC to attack PLA negotiating officers with sticks in Galwan Valley.
    VK Singh had further make clear India is the 10x aggressor and transgressor to soften ground for de-escalation.
    Pravin Sawhney and other (rtd) Gen in had long predicted India will disengage on China's term as it has no alternative, including vacating Kailash peaks.
    It will be one sided crushing war defeat for India facing powerful modern PLA, not to mention a 2 fronts war with Pak, and another 0.5front involving internal unrest, Nepal & Bhutan revolt to free from India clutch, and NEastern 7 states fight to liberate from India's occupation with Myanmar recovering its lost lands of Nagaland, Mizoram and Manipur.
    China has stretched IA to limit in Ladakh (200,000) & J&K (900,000). Yet PLA opening a new front on South Tibet (Anurachal) has Delhi nervous, since there isn't any more forces to despatch, nor resources.


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