‘De-escalation in Ladakh still a long way off’: General Naravane
Army chief General Manoj Mukund Naravane on Wednesday said that the ongoing disengagement process with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh was a “win-win situation” for both sides, but there was “still a long way to go” before de-escalation of conflict in the theatre and eventual de-induction of rival soldiers can be achieved through talks.
“For any agreement to last, both sides should feel they have achieved something. The talks have had a good outcome. Disengagement is a very good end result,” the army chief said, responding to a spate of questions on the border standoff after he delivered a talk on the Role of Indian Army in Dealing with National Security Challenges.
The Vivekananda International Foundation had organised the talk.
Naravane’s comments came four days after Indian and Chinese generals held talks in eastern Ladakh and agreed to resolve outstanding issues at friction points on the LAC in a “steady and orderly” manner and were unanimous that last week’s Pangong Tso disengagement provided “a good basis” for resolving pending problems.
Naravane acknowledged that some issues, including Depsang, remained but strategies were in place to resolve those matters. “We have leverage for negotiating favourable outcomes in future talks, but I would not like to mention those strategies,” he said.
Outstanding problems with PLA at Depsang, Hot Springs and Gogra - friction points on the LAC -- were discussed during the 10th round of talks between corps commander-ranked officers of the two sides on February 20.
Naravane said the army was progressing cautiously because of the trust deficit with PLA. “Until that trust deficit is removed, we will be wary about the developments there…But at the end of the day, we have achieved a lot,” he said.
The army is right to be cautious keeping in view what happened last year along the LAC, in particular at Galwan, and the fact that problems remain at Gogra, Hot Springs, Demchok and Depsang, said former Northern Army commander Lieutenant General DS Hooda (retd).
“It’s good to hear that there are strategies to resolve the remaining areas. But their success will depend on how far we are able to restore status quo ante. That should be the ultimate objective,” Hooda added.
The army chief said China understood that its salami-slicing strategy won’t work with India. Salami slicing refers to a string of small, clandestine actions meant to achieve a larger goal that would be difficult to accomplish in one go.
“China is in the habit of making small incremental moves to achieve its goals. Each such move may not be individually noticeable. It (China) has made use of the strategy to make gains in South China Sea without firing a shot or without loss of life. We have shown them this strategy will not work with us and every move will be met resolutely,” the army chief said.
Asked what steps were being taken to ensure that PLA does not reoccupy strategic heights on the south bank of Pangong Tso, the army chief said systems were in place to make sure that there is no recapturing of heights and the disengagement process – like previous border agreements – are premised on the fact that the pacts will be observed in letter and spirit.
“We will trust but we will also verify,” he said.
Referring to the political, diplomatic and military engagement with China to resolve the standoff, he said the “whole of government approach” worked well and helped India chalk out its response to the developments on the border.
“Whatever has panned out is the result of this approach and what we have achieved so far is very good,” he said. Naravane said national security adviser Ajit Doval's advice was very useful in chalking out response to developments in the Ladakh sector.
The proposals discussed during the February 20 talks to normalise the border situation have been put up by both sides before their higher authorities in order to finalise the future course of disengagement. The talks took place after the completion of the first round of disengagement in the Pangong Tso sector.
PLA’s deployments in Depsang have hindered access of Indian soldiers to Patrolling Points (PP) 10, 11, 11-A, 12 and 13, as previously reported by Hindustan Times.
The Indian Army’s patrolling activity has also been affected in Gogra and Hot Springs, where rival troops are forward deployed and where skeletal disengagement took place last year, but the gains could not be consolidated.
The India-China border standoff began last May and saw both sides deploy 50,000 troops each in the Ladakh theatre along with advanced weaponry.
The Pangong disengagement took place on strategic heights on both banks of the lake, and saw the two armies pull back their frontline troops, tanks, infantry combat vehicles and artillery guns under an agreement reached earlier this month.
The disengagement will be phased, coordinated and verified at all friction points. The first round of disengagement at Pangong Tso involved pulling back troops deployed eyeball-to-eyeball on the Finger 4 ridgeline as well as withdrawing soldiers holding positions on the Kailash range on the south bank.
On the north bank, PLA retreated to its base east of Finger 8, while the Indian Army moved back to its position near Finger 3. Under the disengagement agreement, neither side will patrol the contested areas between Fingers 4 and 8 until an agreement is reached through future talks.
India’s bold moves on the south bank of Pangong Tso last August boosted the army’s bargaining power during military talks and eventually led to an agreement on disengagement. The Indian Army occupied a series of heights to prevent the PLA from grabbing Indian territory on the south bank in a stealthy midnight move on August 29, 2020.