New Delhi: The India-China standoff in Ladakh, which began in April 2020 with People’s Liberation Army (PLA) incursions along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), has nearly completed a year. The Ladakh winter has receded, bringing curtains down on the first-ever instance of forward deployment by India and China through the region’s bitter cold season, and disengagement has been achieved at two friction points, including Pangong Tso.
However, the PLA’s continued deployment within the Indian perception of the LAC at other standoff sites — the Depsang Plains, Demchok, Gogra and Hot Spring — continues to remain a matter of concern.
India and China are currently engaged with each other to finalise dates for the next round of corps commander-level talks, which will be the tenth since tensions began.
Sources in the defence and security establishment said China has yet to get back on the dates proposed for the talks. The date under discussion, they added, is 9 April.
Talking about the issues at hand, the sources pointed to the aforementioned friction points even as they noted that disengagement at the southern and northern banks of the Pangong Tso had been completed in keeping with the joint decision. The other sites of conflict also formed the focus of the last corps commander talks held 20 February, they said.
Following the 16-hour talks, top sources had said earlier, the two sides agreed to broader parameters for further disengagement in Ladakh. The teams were supposed to meet again shortly after discussing the developments with their respective higher authorities.
In India, the China Study Group, which advises the government on the eastern border, met and discussed the outcome of the talks and further directions were given.
Since last year, India and China have completed disengagement at Galwan Valley, where a clash left 20 Indian soldiers dead in June 2020, and Pangong Tso, the latter executed earlier this year.
While India and China agreed to pull back troops from the southern banks, there were many in the defence and security establishment who felt that India should not give away its bargaining chip — Kailash Range — which it occupied last August in a late-night operation that caught the Chinese by surprise.
Among the areas where the standoff continues, the two sides had agreed to de-escalation and disengagement from Gogra and Hot Springs in July last year but this was never implemented in full. There are also legacy issues in Depsang Plains and Demchok, where the tensions date back much before April 2020.
The Chinese intrusion in Gogra took place in May last year, after the PLA violated the LAC at Pangong Tso and tensions emerged in the Galwan Valley. The Indians used to patrol up to Patrolling Point (PP)-15, which was known as the Gogra Post. However, the Chinese moved a platoon of soldiers three kilometres inside the Indian perception of the LAC.
Simultaneously, they maintained considerable strength on their side of the LAC, providing a strong back-up to the soldiers who transgressed the LAC. The latter set up a few tents inside the Indian perception of the LAC and the Indians countered them by organising a “mirror deployment”, whereby they matched the PLA team’s strength and pitched tents facing theirs.
Following the disengagement agreement reached in the wake of the 15 June 2020 Galwan Valley clash, the Chinese were supposed to move back to their side of the LAC.
While a limited movement did take place, they never implemented the pullback completely, continuing to maintain a small section of troops within the Indian perception of the LAC.
Just like in Gogra, the Chinese came within the Indian perception of the LAC here, blocking PP-17 and PP-17A in the larger Hot Springs area. In July, the Chinese had agreed to pull back from this area, but again did not fully implement the agreement.
The disengagement talks in July were the second such exercise after the standoff began. The first, a meeting between corps commander-level officers on 6 June, failed after the Chinese didn’t hold up their end of the agreement in Galwan Valley and a clash ensued. Twenty Indian soldiers died in the clash, with the Chinese side acknowledging at least four fatalities at their end. This clash was the first instance since 1975 when a clash on the India-China border resulted in deaths.
In the wake of the second round of talks, the only location where the Chinese completely implemented their disengagement commitments was in Galwan Valley.
Sources had said in May last year that it would take only 5-6 hours for the Chinese to pack up and leave if they really intended to.
Depsang Plains, which comes under Sub-Sector North, is a key area that has witnessed Chinese strong-arm tactics and is associated with wider strategic ramifications than Gogra and Hot Springs.
The tensions at Depsang Plains can be traced to 2013, when the PLA carried out an 18-km incursion into the area, which is close to the strategic Daulat Beg Oldi base. Tensions here escalated during the 2017 Doklam standoff.
Sources said the issue in Depsang Plains relates to China blocking Indian patrol parties from accessing five patrolling points — 10, 11, 11A, 12 and 13. To reach these points, Indian patrol personnel have to walk through an area referred to as “bottleneck”, which is too narrow for vehicles.
Less than a kilometre after this is an area called ‘Y’ junction, which has two routes — one going to PP 10, 11, 11A and 12, and the other directly to PP 13.
The Chinese have set up cameras in this area and block Indian patrols with the vehicles they drive in from their side. There have been claims that the Chinese have also pitched tents on the Indian side, but the Army denies it.
The issue of Demchok is another legacy problem. The area has always seen face-offs because the perception of the LAC differs vastly on both sides. The Chinese have, in the past, objected to activities of Indian herders accessing local grasslands, claiming it was their territory. The Chinese have over the years built permanent facilities for soldiers in areas India sees as its territory.
Following the fresh round of tensions in Ladakh, the Chinese carried out a “minor transgression” at Demchok and the PLA set up a “few” tents.
“But this area is disputed,” a source had said, adding that this is not a classical violation. “It was on-and-off previously but, since April, the Chinese have firmed up.”
The Indians also have an issue with a new communication tower that has come up since the latest round of tensions, on what China says is its territory.