In the first major breakthrough in talks to resolve the nine-month military standoff along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh, China’s Defence Ministry announced Wednesday that Chinese and Indian troops on the southern and northern shores of Pangong Tso began “synchronized and organized disengagement” in line with the consensus reached between Corps Commanders when they last met on January 24. While there was no statement from the Indian Army on Wednesday, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh made a statement in Rajya Sabha Thursday about the “present situation in eastern Ladakh.”
What is the new disengagement plan in eastern Ladakh?
According to the statement made by Rajnath Singh Thursday, and the statement issued by the Chinese Defence Ministry a day before, troops from both sides have started disengaging from the Pangong Tso area in eastern Ladakh.
As of now, the disengagement process seems restricted to the north and south banks of Pangong Tso.
Sources in the security establishment have mentioned that the process has started with the pulling back of certain columns of tanks from the south bank region by both sides. At the moment, there is no pullback of troops from the friction points and the heights they are positioned on. That will happen in a phased and verified manner. The ground commanders have started meeting since Tuesday to figure out the nitty-gritty of the process.
What does this disengagement process entail?
According to the statement made by Rajnath Singh in Rajya Sabha, “both sides will remove the forward deployment in a phased, coordinated and verified manner”.
“China will pull its troops on the north bank towards the east of Finger 8. Similarly, India will also position its forces at its permanent base at the Dhan Singh Thapa post near Finger 3. Similar action will be taken by both the parties in the south bank area as well.”
Both sides have also agreed that the area between Finger 3 and Finger 8 will become a no-patrolling zone temporarily, till both sides reach an agreement through military and diplomatic discussions to restore patrolling. Further, all the construction done by both sides on the north and south banks of the lake since April 2020 will be removed.
Based on this agreement action started from Wednesday, he said, on the north and south bank. “It is expected that this will restore the situation to before the standoff of last year,” Singh said.
Senior Colonel Wu Qian, spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of National Defence, had said in a written statement on Wednesday: “The Chinese and Indian frontline troops at the southern and northern bank of the Pangong Tso Lake start synchronized and organized disengagement from February 10.”
“This move is in accordance with the consensus reached by both sides at the 9th round of China-India Corps Commander Level Meeting,” the Chinese statement said.
It is important to note that the process, as announced, will send Indian and Chinese troops back to their traditional bases on the north bank. While India has its traditional base at the Dhan Singh Thapa Post, just west of Finger 3, China has had its base east of Finger 8.
As of now, the disengagement process seems restricted to the north and south banks of Pangong Tso.
Why is this area important?
The north and south banks of Pangong Tso are two of the most significant and sensitive regions when it comes to the current standoff that began in May 2020. What makes the areas around the shores of the lake so sensitive and important is that clashes here marked the beginning of the standoff; it is one of the areas where the Chinese troops had come around 8 km deep west of India’s perception of the Line of Actual Control.
China had positioned its troops on the ridgeline connecting Fingers 3 and 4, while according to India the LAC passes through Finger 8. Further, it is in the south bank of the lake that Indian forces in an action in late August had gained strategic advantage by occupying certain peaks, outwitting the Chinese. Indian troops had positioned themselves on heights of Magar Hill, Mukhpari, Gurung Hill, Rezang La and Rechin La, which were unoccupied by either side earlier. Since then, the Chinese side had been particularly sensitive as these positions allowed India to not only dominate Spanggur Gap, which is a two-km wide valley that can be used to launch an offensive, as China had done in 1962, they also allow India a direct view of China’s Moldo Garrison.
After this action India had also re-positioned its troops on the north bank to occupy heights overlooking Chinese positions on the north bank as well. During this jostling, warning shots had been fired more than once. And troops from the two sides had been sitting just a few hundred meters apart from each other at many of these heights, making the region a tinderbox.
Why has this taken so long?
Since September, China has insisted that India first pull its troops back from the south bank of Pangong Tso, and the Chushul sub-sector. However, India has been demanding that any disengagement process should include the entire region, and troops should go back to their April 2020 positions.
However, it seems that for now both sides have agreed to first disengage from the Pangong Tso area only.
Singh mentioned on Thursday that in the military and diplomatic discussions with China since last year, “we have told China that we want a solution to the issue on the basis of three principles:
(i) LAC should be accepted and respected by both the parties.
(ii) Neither party should attempt to change the status quo unilaterally.
(iii) All agreements should be fully adhered to by both parties.
Also, for disengagement in the friction areas, he said, “India is of the view that the forward deployments of 2020 which are very close to each other should be pulled back and both the armies should return to their permanent and recognised posts”.
Does this mean that the standoff is resolved?
That’s a clear no.
Even Singh said in his statement that “there are still some outstanding issues that remain regarding deployment and patrolling on LAC” and mentioned that “our attention will be on these in further discussions”.
“Both sides agree that complete disengagement under bilateral agreements and protocols should be done as soon as possible. After the talks so far, China is also aware of our resolve to protect the sovereignty of the country. It is our expectation that China will work with us seriously to resolve the remaining issues.” the Defence Minister said.
He also said that both sides have agreed that “within 48 hours of complete disengagement from Pangong Lake, senior commanders level talks should be held and the remaining issues should be resolved”.
Chinese troops had crossed the LAC in four other parts last year. Those were in Gogra Post at Patrolling Point 17A (PP17A) and Hot Springs area near PP15, both of which are close to each other. The third was PP14 in Galwan Valley, which became the site of the major altercation between Indian and Chinese troops on June 15, in which 20 Indian soldiers and an undeclared number of Chinese troops were killed.
The fourth, one of the most sensitive areas, that was not mentioned by Singh or by China in the new disengagement process is Depsang Plains, which is close to India’s strategic Daulat Beg Oldie base, near the Karakoram Pass in the north.
In this region, China, which has regularly patrolled till the bottleneck, or Y-Junction in the region, has blocked Indian troops from moving east to their patrolling limits. The bottleneck is around 18 kms west of the LAC, and lies just 30 km southeast of Daulat Beg Oldie.
Indian troops are unable to reach even their traditional patrolling limits at PP10, PP11, PP11A, PP12 and PP13. This line of patrolling is anyhow significantly deeper inside than the LAC. Senior security establishment officials, however, have been insistent earlier that the issue in Depsang Plains pre-dates the current standoff.
What are the hurdles?
Two of the main stumbling blocks in finding a permanent resolution are lack of trust and no clarity on intent.
Any permanent resolution will include first, disengagement of troops from the frontlines from all friction points, then de-escalation that will entail sending the troops from the depth areas to their original bases. Both sides have around 50,000 troops in the region, along with additional tanks, artillery and air defence assets. As the standoff progressed in the months of May, June and July, there was a mirrored military build-up from both sides. A resolution has to include sending these troops and military equipment where they came from on both sides. But neither side had been willing to take the first step to reduce their troop or military strength, as it does not trust the other side.
Sources in the military establishment have reiterated multiple times that what was China’s intent for diverting its troops last May from their traditional exercise in the region to the LAC, which led to the standoff is not known.
Further, this is not the first disengagement attempt even for this standoff.
Both sides had started pulling back troops from the friction areas in June last year, after the first round of Corps Commander-level talks. It was during this pulling back of troops and equipment, starting from PP14, that the clashes in Galwan Valley had taken place, which had raised the tensions. However, both sides had again started pulling back their troops from the friction points in July, after the Corps Commanders had again met twice, but that process remained unsuccessful. Though China pulled its troops back to its side from PP14, it kept some troops on the Indian side of the LAC at PP15 and PP17A. In the Pangong Tso area—south bank was not a friction point till then—China pulled its troops back from the base of Finger 4, to Finger 5, however, it refused to vacate the Finger 4 ridgeline.
At that moment, India did not have a bargaining chip. It was only after India’s action in the south bank in end of August that gave India the advantage in the region, as it occupied heights crossing the LAC at several points, that India gained some leverage.
But the action had further increased the trust deficit between both sides.
In early September, the defence ministers of both the countries, and the foreign minister met in Moscow. Since then the senior military commanders have met four more times, and these meetings also included diplomats being present.
The agreement to finally disengage from the Pangong Tso area was reached in the ninth round of the senior commander talks on January 24. The Indian delegation was led by Lt Gen PGK Menon, commander of XIV Corps, which is responsible for the LAC in eastern Ladakh, and Naveen Srivastava, Additional Secretary looking after East Asia in the External Affairs Ministry, who has been leading the Indian side in meetings of the Working Mechanism for Consultation & Coordination on India-China Border Affairs (WMCC) participated in the talks. Chinese delegation was led by Major Gen Liu Lin, commander of the South Xinjiang Military Region.
The situation in Depsang Plains continues to be a concern.