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International relations

India and China agree to truce, while US looks to bolster 'Quad'

Analysts in Washington call for four-party framework to keep Beijing at bay

The governments of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi have agreed to a truce in the Himalayan borders.   © Kyodo

NEW DELHI/NEW YORK -- India and China on Tuesday agreed to disengage from a tense standoff in eastern Ladakh along a disputed Himalayan border, where 20 Indian soldiers were killed in violent clashes with the Chinese side on June 15.

The consensus was reached after talks were held between top commanders on Monday at Moldo on the Chinese side of the 3,500-km Line of Actual Control between the two nuclear-armed countries.

"Modalities for disengagement from all friction areas in eastern Ladakh were discussed and will be taken forward by both the sides," an Indian government source said.

In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian also said that the commanders agreed to "take necessary measures to lower the temperature." Both sides will keep up dialogue and "work together for peace and tranquility on the ground along the border," Zhao said.

He strongly denied recent Indian media reports of 40 Chinese casualties in the conflict. "I can tell you responsibly that this is false information," Zhao said at the daily press briefing.

The truce came as the foreign ministers of the two countries and Russia held a virtual meeting on Tuesday. It was unclear if bilateral issues, including those between New Delhi and Beijing, came up for discussion during the virtual meeting.

N.C. Bipindra, a defense and strategic affairs analyst and editor of news portal Defence.Capital, said it was possible that Moscow might have nudged the two sides to find common ground, although it was unlikely anyone would admit to that. "Public posturing in diplomacy is very different from what happens behind the scenes."

India was understood to have been reluctant to partake in the trilateral meeting after the clashes but Bipindra said it finally acquiesced "after Russia persuaded it to come to the table," indicating that "certainly behind the curtains they would have discussed the border impasse."

In Washington, analysts called for the U.S. to strengthen its quadrilateral, or Quad, partnership with India, Japan and Australia to "balance, counter and contain" what they see as increased activity by China.

Patrick Cronin, the Asia-Pacific security chair at the Hudson Institute think tank, said Chinese actions along the Himalayan frontier with India are "part of their total competition campaign" characteristic of President Xi Jinping's eight years in power.

In a virtal forum hosted by the think tank, Cronin said he thought the June 15 clashes in the Galwan Valley in eastern Ladakh -- the first such fatal ones between China and India in more than four decades -- were "premeditated" by a Beijing seeking incremental expansion.

He called for the Quad countries to unite in standing up to China. The Quad framework "is one that really does frighten leaders in Beijing," Cronin said.

U.S. President Donald Trump, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi seen at the G-20 leaders summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina in November 2018. Together with Australia, the countries form a Quad partnership.   © Reuters

"The idea that these four could combine their forces against China's interests ... they do worry about that," Cronin said.

Hudson Institute senior fellow John Lee agreed. The border clash "has given the Quad quite a big push forward," he said.

Aparna Pande, director of Hudson's Initiative on the Future of India and South Asia, said India will be looking at a "Quad plus" formula that extends an invitation to the ASEAN countries of Southeast Asia.

Visiting India this February, U.S. President Donald Trump vowed to restart Quad cooperation.

"Together, the prime minister [Narendra Modi] and I are revitalizing the Quad Initiative with the United States, India, Australia and Japan," Trump said. "Since I took office, we have held the first Quad ministerial meeting ... and expanded cooperation on counterterrorism, cybersecurity and maritime security to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific."

During the June 15 clashes, no bullets were fired. Troops engaged in fistfights and also used sticks and stones as weapons.

This is in part due to several agreements signed between the two since 1993 to refrain from the use of force to maintain peace.

Both sides have accused each other of unilateral action. Indian government sources, however, said that Monday's talks between India and China were held in a cordial, positive and constructive atmosphere.

This was the second meeting between the commanders. They met on June 6 after tensions built up over May when Indian and Chinese soldiers clashed at Pangong Tso, a lake 14,000 feet above sea level in Ladakh along the LAC.

Troops then also engaged in fist fights and attacked each other with sticks and stones, leaving scores on both sides injured, India media reported. Over 1,000 Chinese soldiers were said to have entered Indian territory.

The hostility is believed to have been triggered by India laying a road in the region as part of efforts to improve infrastructure. A few days after the May 5 clashes, similar outbreaks of violence occurred more than 1,000 km away in North Sikkim.

Shamshad Ahmad Khan, a visiting associate fellow at the New Delhi-based Institute of Chinese Studies, said whether the peace holds will depend on the behavior of the People's Liberation Army.

He said that in past flare-ups, the Chinese side would agree to resolve the issue through dialogue, but "after retreating from one sector, it intrudes into another" on the border. "It seems it is a calculated strategy on the part of the PLA," he said.

"The recent incursion [into what India sees as its territory] indicates that the PLA does not respect the decisions made at the level of the political leadership between the two countries," he said. "This disengagement will help only when the PLA leadership respects the political decisions."

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