This is what the terrain over which India and China came to a standoff in Ladakh generally looks like (Image: Google Earth)
India and China have used the diplomatic equivalent of computer system restore by agreeing to status quo ante over a potentially dangerous border incursion.
The two Asian giants, at once wary of and solicitous about each other, had been engaged in what was described as one of their most troublesome standoffs over a disputed border region in Ladakh. Chinese soldiers were reported to have set up tents 19 kilometers inside what India claims to be its territory in what is known as Daulat Beg Oldie.
The incursion, which was sought to be described as a “localized” problem by India, had the hawks in Delhi demanding a precipitate action by the Manmohan Singh government. It was suggested that New Delhi start by cancelling Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid’s May 9 visit to Beijing. However, the government insisted that it was dealing with the issue in its own sober way without responding to the provocation from the Chinese and taunts from the hawks at home.
"The governments of India and China have agreed to restore status quo ante along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Western Sector of the India-China boundary as it existed prior to April 15, 2013," foreign ministry spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin was quoted as saying.
"Flag meetings have been held to work out the modalities and to confirm the arrangements," he said.
Some of you may be aware of the option of system restore in the Microsoft operating system in the event that something goes wrong. Simply put, this option allows you to return to a point just before the system had failed or developed snags. It is a smart surgical move that excises the source of the problem. It works in computers but at the cost of losing whatever data you might have created after the problem arose. In diplomacy, status quo ante is very similar and yet very different because it does not erase institutional memory. India would institutionally and individually remember this incursion which is bound to affect any future intercourse with China.
Going by the turn of events, it would appear for now that the Indian government’s sobriety in dealing with the incursion was justifiable. At the same time though, one can argue that China must have been taken note of the strong domestic reaction from a certain quarter of Indian political and popular opinion while agreeing with the status quo ante. There is no way of knowing for sure whether the Indian interlocutors cited the restive domestic constituency while talking to their counterparts. Of course, China is not known to plan its grand moves being mindful of what the people of the country against whom they are acting might say. The logical explanation is that Beijing probably reasoned that they are better off not having this irritant in their bilateral dealing with New Delhi at this time.
The pull-back of the troops by both sides to their respective positions before April 15, and hence the description status quo ante, is a rational way to deal with the problem. The Line of Actual Control (LAC), the de-facto border, is now back to normal. There has to have been some give and take behind-the-scenes by the two sides in agreeing to the pull-back. We do not know yet what that might be.
Khurshid will now travel as scheduled, perhaps chastened by the events or may be encouraged by the mature resolution. As the Indian spokesman pointed out, the foreign ministers of the two countries will discuss “bilateral, regional and global issues and proposed visit to India of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang." Li is expected to visit India this month.