China troops pull back from key friction points
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has withdrawn up to 1.5km from friction areas in Galwan Valley, Hot Springs and Gogra along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh, and the Indian Army has pulled back proportionately, acting on an understanding reached last week by top Indian and Chinese military commanders on a phased de-escalation of the ongoing border conflict in the Ladakh theatre, multiple people familiar with the developments said on Monday.
A minor thinning of PLA soldiers has also been noticed at the sensitive Finger Area near Pangong Tso, they added.
But India is keeping its guard up and advancing with maximum caution as the complex disengagement process begins along the tense and heavily militarised border, an official said on the condition of anonymity.
The Indian Army has observed the PLA retreat up to 1.5km (still under verification) from Patrolling Point (PP)-14 in the Galwan Valley — the site of a deadly clash which left 20 Indian and an unconfirmed number of Chinese soldiers dead on June 15 — after removing some temporary structures and tents it had pitched there, a second official said.
This stepping back of soldiers in Galwan Valley has created a 3km buffer zone, he added.
“Rearward movement of PLA vehicles has been seen in Galwan Valley and the Hot Springs-Gogra post sector (PP-15 and PP-17),” the official said.
“Some skeletal withdrawal of PLA troops and vehicles has been observed at Finger 4 but the army wouldn’t categorise it as disengagement while it keeps a close watch on the developments there,” said a third official aware of the matter.
The military buildup in Indian and Chinese depth areas, however, hasn’t thinned, with both sides keeping their guard up. The deployment of thousands of soldiers, fighter jets, helicopters, tanks, artillery guns, missile systems and air defence weapons continues in the region, according to the people cited above.
The disengagement process, a precursor to any kind of de-escalation of the border conflict — which entered its third month on Monday — has started under the terms mutually agreed to at the June 30 meeting between delegations led by Lieutenant General Harinder Singh, commander of the Leh-based 14 Corps, and Major General Liu Lin, commander of the South Xinjiang military region.
It also followed a two-hour video conference between India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and China’s foreign minister Wang Yi, according to official statements by both countries.
The two Special Representatives (SR) on the India-China boundary question agreed that “it was necessary to ensure at the earliest complete disengagement of troops along the LAC and de-escalation from India-China border areas for full restoration of peace and tranquillity,” the ministry of external affairs said in a statement.
“The two sides welcome the progress made in the recent military and diplomatic meetings between the two countries, and agree to continue the dialogue and consultation, and emphasise that the consensus reached at the level of the two border defence forces commanders should be implemented as soon as possible to complete the process of disengagement of the front-line forces of the two sides as soon as possible,” said the Chinese statement.
Explaining the need for maximum caution while dealing with China, the officials cited above said the Chinese PLA was making claims to areas that are up to 800 metres inside what New Delhi considers its territory in Galwan Valley.
“The PLA claim has shifted to Nala junction or Y-junction where Galwan river meets the Shyok, which is 800 metres on the Indian side of China’s claim of 1959. In April 2020, the PLA objected to the construction of a bridge at the mouth of Galwan. This area was never contested and that’s why face-offs never took place here,” the officials said.
As disengagement progresses, it’s critical to define buffer zones clearly with natural features and ensure that soldiers do not venture into these areas as a step towards reversing the trust deficit created by the Galwan Valley clash, they said.
The officials said that the PLA was also creating a dispute at Naku La in north Sikkim by disregarding the watershed principle, an established global norm for border demarcation. They said the PLA was repeatedly carrying out transgressions in the Naku La area, where four Indian and seven Chinese soldiers were injured during a violent face-off involving 150 troops on May 9.
Military experts reacted to the development with guarded optimism and underlined the need to proceed with caution, given the trust deficit created by the Galwan Valley skirmish.
“It’s a positive sign that some disengagement is taking place. Separation of soldiers lessens the chances of any clash taking place that could vitiate the atmosphere for future diplomatic and military-level talks,” said Lieutenant General DS Hooda (retd), a former Northern Army commander.
A limited military disengagement in the same friction areas — Galwan Valley, Hot Springs and Gogra — was initiated last month after the senior military commanders reached an understanding on reducing tensions during their first meeting on June 6. However, the Galwan Valley clash dashed disengagement hopes.
“While we need to tread cautiously, at least there does appear to be some desire from both sides to break through the stalemate that has existed along the LAC,” Hooda added.
Disengagement involves rival troops pulling back a specified distance from face-off sites, with further retreat taking place in phases as the complex plan progresses on a verifiable basis on the ground every 72 hours by both sides. It also entails the phased withdrawal of weapons and equipment to a mutually agreed distance, and finally the restoration of status quo ante (early April).
At the June 30 meeting, the Indian side reiterated its demand for the pullback of Chinese troops from friction points along the LAC and sought the restoration of status quo ante (early April) in key areas such as Pangong Tso, Galwan Valley, Hot Springs, Gogra and the strategic Depsang plains, apart from emphasising the need for thinning the military buildup in the region.
The corps commander-ranked officers previously met on June 22 when they hammered out a consensus on disengaging from friction points along the disputed border. However, the “mutual consensus to disengage” from all “friction areas” neither enabled any disengagement on the ground nor led to the thinning of the military build-up by rival forces in the region, leading to their third meeting on June 30.