Indian, Chinese armies begin pullback at LAC
- There was no official word from India’s defence ministry or foreign ministry on the development, which came against the backdrop of a nine-month military standoff in the Ladakh sector of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that has taken bilateral ties to an all-time low.
Indian and Chinese troops have begun disengaging on the southern and northern banks of Pangong Tso, China’s defence ministry announced on Wednesday even as people familiar with the development in India said both sides were pulling back armoured elements from heights around the frozen lake.
There was no official word from India’s defence ministry or foreign ministry on the development, which came against the backdrop of a nine-month military standoff in the Ladakh sector of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that has taken bilateral ties to an all-time low.
Defence minister Rajnath Singh will make a statement on the development in Parliament on Thursday, in line with the convention that such key issues are first taken up in the House when it is in session.
In a statement on the Chinese defence ministry’s website, spokesperson Senior Colonel Wu Qian said: “The Chinese and Indian frontline troops at the southern and northern bank of the Pangong Tso Lake start synchronised and organised disengagement from February 10.”
He added: “This move is in accordance with the consensus reached by both sides at the 9th round of China-India Corps Commander Level Meeting.” The reference was to a meeting of military commanders held on the Chinese side of the Moldo-Chushul border meeting point on January 24.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said in a similar statement that troops from both sides had begun to “conduct simultaneous and planned disengagement” at Pangong lake in line with the consensus reached by the Chinese and Indian foreign ministers at a meeting in Moscow last September and the ninth round of commander-level talks.
“We hope the Indian side will work with China to meet each other halfway, strictly implement the consensus reached between the two sides and ensure the smooth implementation of the disengagement process,” Wang added.
Both statements gave no details of the disengagement process.
In New Delhi, people familiar with the disengagement plan said on condition of anonymity that both sides have started pulling back armoured elements – tanks and infantry combat vehicles – from heights on the southern bank of Pangong lake.
Troops are still holding positions on strategic heights, the people said. No withdrawal of troops has taken place in the Finger Area on the northern bank of the lake, the people added.
One of the people cited above said the Indian side would proceed with extreme caution in view of China’s actions during the standoff, including attempts to unilaterally alter the status quo at Pangong lake last August.
The Indian Army occupied a series of key heights to prevent the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) from grabbing territory on the southern bank of Pangong Tso in a stealthy midnight move on August 29, 2020. The Indian side’s control of ridgeline positions on the southern bank allows it to dominate the sector and keep an eye on Chinese military activity. These positions are scattered across Rezang and Reqin passes, Gurung Hill and Magar heights, while the PLA also holds some features on the southern bank.
Last September, India rushed frontline tanks and armoured vehicles to the strategic heights held by its soldiers on the southern bank, in response to intimidating moves by the PLA.
Following the ninth meeting of the military commanders, a joint statement said the two sides had “agreed to push for an early disengagement of the frontline troops”, and to hold the 10th round of the commander-level meeting “at an early date to jointly advance de-escalation”.
LAC passes through Pangong lake, parts of which are controlled by Indian and Chinese troops. Both sides also patrol the waters of the lake in special boats.
This is the second attempt to disengage frontline troops to resolve the standoff that began last May. Disengagement in Galwan valley took place in early July, but it didn’t progress in other areas. India has consistently pushed for comprehensive disengagement at all friction points and restoration of the status quo ante of early April 2020.
The announcement of disengagement by the Chinese side was markedly different from the resolution of the military standoff at Doklam in 2017. At that time, both countries issued simultaneous statements on troop withdrawals.
Former Northern Army commander, Lt Gen (retired) DS Hooda, said: “On the face of it, the disengagement is a positive step. I think we will have to wait for details of the process, whether it includes all military presence or only heavy equipment.”
Vipin Narang, associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said: “Let’s see what happens. Any movement toward disengagement is good, but it has to be real and sustained, and verified not just in Pangong but eventually elsewhere as well. It can’t be China pretending to disengage and India pretending to believe it.”
Qian Feng, of the National Strategy Institute at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, described China’s announcement as a positive move.
“The agreement between the two sides to withdraw troops before the Chinese lunar calendar’s Spring Festival is good news, not only to avoid a continued decline of Sino-Indian relations but also to ease tensions along the border...and reduce the possibility of friction and conflict in the short term,” Qian said.