Indian Army, PLA consider scaling up disengagement
The Indian Army and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) are considering a proposal for phased withdrawal of troops and military equipment in the sensitive Pangong Tso sector as part of a broader disengagement plan to reduce tensions in the Ladakh theatre, people familiar with the developments said on Wednesday.
If the proposal goes through, it will be the first significant movement in negotiations in more than four months — disengagement in Galwan valley took place in early July but it did not progress in other areas.
The proposal to disengage at both the northern and southern banks of Pangong Tso was first discussed on November 6 during the eighth round of military talks between corps commander-ranked officers from the two armies in the Chushul sector, said one of the officials cited above, asking not to be named.
The highlights of the proposal include both armies retreating from their current positions in the Finger Area on the northern bank of Pangong Tso, moving back tanks, infantry combat vehicles and artillery guns to a specified distance in the Chushul sector and mutual withdrawal of troops and equipment from heights on the southern bank of the Pangong Tso, said a second official.
These steps are proposed to be jointly verified by both armies. “Discussions on the proposal are on but there is no agreement on it yet. Things remain unchanged on the ground,” the second official added.
Experts said if the proposal is accepted, it may finally mean progress in the deadlocked talks.
“The positive aspect of the development is that the possibility of some give and take is emerging. However, the PLA has to address our concerns and restore status quo ante of early April in Depsang and other sub-sectors too. It is crucial that disengagement takes place simultaneously at all flashpoints,” said Lieutenant General Vinod Bhatia (retd), a former director general of military operations. The PLA’s aggressive forward deployments in eastern Ladakh have hindered the Indian Army’s patrolling patterns in Depsang, Finger Area, Gogra and Kongka La.
Signs of a forward movement in military talks between India and China appeared during the November 6 dialogue, with the neighbour agreeing to discuss disengagement at all flashpoints and not insisting on talking only about the southern bank of Pangong Tso, where the Indian Army holds dominating heights, as reported by HT on Tuesday.
The newest proposal under consideration involves the PLA withdrawing to the east of Finger 8 on the northern bank, with the Indian Army retreating to the Dhan Singh Thapa post at Finger 3, the officials said. The proposal could be discussed further at the next round of military talks scheduled to take place as early as this week.
In the first week of September, the Indian Army took control of key heights overlooking the PLA’s deployments on the Finger 4 ridgeline where rival soldiers are currently deployed barely a few hundred metres from each other.
Before the PLA grabbed positions on Finger 4, the Indian Army would patrol right up to Finger 8 that New Delhi considers within Indian territory. The new positions held by the PLA have curtailed the scope of Indian patrols.
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Fingers 4 and 8 are 8 km apart. The Indian claim line in this sector extends to Finger 8, while the Chinese claim is up to Finger 4.
Until now, China had been insisting that India withdraw its soldiers from strategic heights on the southern bank of Pangong Tso to reduce friction along the LAC, while the India side was firmly pushing for comprehensive disengagement at all flashpoints and restoration of status quo ante of early April during the military talks.
There is a perception on the Indian side that the Chinese military is grappling with the difficulties of mobilising and deploying tens of thousands of troops along the LAC during the harsh winter — something that it hasn’t done in the past, as reported by HT on Tuesday.
The scope of the military talks changed after the Indian Army occupied a series of key heights to prevent the PLA from grabbing chunks of Indian territory on the southern bank of Pangong Tso in a stealthy midnight move on August 29. The Indian Army ‘s control of ridgeline positions on the lake’s southern bank allows it to completely dominate the sector and keep an eye on Chinese military activity, with the positions scattered across Rezang La, Reqin pass, Gurung Hill and Magar heights — the PLA also holds some features on the southern bank.