‘Nothing conceded’: Centre on LAC troop pullback deal
- Until now, rival soldiers have been deployed eyeball-to-eyeball on the Finger 4 ridgeline at heights of almost 18,000 feet.
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will retreat to its base east of Finger 8 on the north bank of Pangong Tso, the Indian Army will move back to its permanent position near Finger 3 and neither side will patrol the contested areas in between until an agreement is reached through future talks, defence minister Rajnath Singh told Parliament on Thursday, explaining the nuances of a disengagement plan hammered out by the two armies to reduce military tensions in eastern Ladakh.
Until now, rival soldiers have been deployed eyeball-to-eyeball on the Finger 4 ridgeline at heights of almost 18,000 feet.
The Chinese defence ministry announced the disengagement on Wednesday; New Delhi did not react immediately because Parliament was in session, and a day later, Singh briefed the House on the breakthrough in a months-long impasse.
In a detailed statement on the situation in eastern Ladakh, Singh told Rajya Sabha and later Lok Sabha that the next meeting between senior military commanders of the two armies to discuss other issues will take place 48 hours after “complete disengagement” in the Pangong Lake area — both north and south banks.
Singh told both Houses that India did not “concede anything” during the military talks, and added that there were still some “outstanding issues regarding deployment and patrolling” at some other points along the LAC, and these will be the focus of further discussions with the Chinese side.
He did not name the other friction points where disengagement is expected to take place in phases after it is completed in the Pangong Tso area. These flashpoints include Gogra, Hot Springs and Kongka La — areas that were traditionally not disputed as both sides had a somewhat common perception of the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
The minister’s statement came on the back of a limited withdrawal of front-line troops by the Indian and Chinese armies from the Pangong Tso area on the contested Line of Actual Control (LAC). India and China on Wednesday pulled back tanks and infantry combat vehicles from heights on the south bank of Pangong Tso a fortnight after military commanders agreed on January 24 to push for an early disengagement of their front-line troops.
The Indian Army on Thursday released visuals of rival tanks disengaging from the heights on the south bank. The tanks were deployed barely 50 metres away from each other. In Lok Sabha, Singh said disengagement was progressing smoothly and the vehicles (armoured elements) that were to retreat (from heights on the south bank) had gone back to their respective sides.
“The agreement that we have been able to reach with the Chinese side for disengagement in the Pangong lake area envisages that both sides will cease their forward deployments in a phased, coordinated and verified manner. The Chinese side will keep its troop presence in the north bank area to the east of Finger 8. Reciprocally, the Indian troops will be based at their permanent base at Dhan Singh Thapa post near Finger 3,” Singh said in his highly anticipated statement on the Ladakh standoff.
Similar actions will be taken on the south bank by both armies, Singh said, without elaborating on the areas to which rival soldiers will fall back.
The Finger Area, a set of eight cliffs jutting out of the Sirijap range overlooking the Pangong lake, is one of the many friction points in the eastern Ladakh theatre, where India and China have together deployed almost 100,000 soldiers and advanced weaponry in their forward and depth areas.
Describing the disengagement measures as “mutual and reciprocal,” Singh said structures built by both sides after April 2020 at heights on both banks of the lake will be removed. Patrolling will be a strict no-no in the north bank areas to pre-empt the possibility of more face-offs.
India and China agreed to have a “temporary moratorium on military activities” by both sides on the north bank, including a freeze on patrolling to traditional areas.
“Patrolling will be resumed only when both sides reach an agreement in diplomatic and military talks that would be held subsequently. The implementation of this agreement has started yesterday in the north and south bank of the Pangong Lake. It will substantially restore the situation to that existing prior to commencement of the standoff last year,” the minister said.
Some thinning out of rival troops on both banks of Pangong Tso took place on Thursday , people familiar with the development said. “We expect complete disengagement in the Pangong Tso area in about two weeks,” one of the people said on condition of anonymity.
Experts welcomed the disengagement process but urged India to proceed with caution to avoid being surprised.
“The disengagement process is in line with what India had been demanding - a restoration of status quo ante. The Pangong Tso area has been the main point of contention and resolving this could provide an impetus for other areas where some issues remain,” said former Northern Army commander Lieutenant General DS Hooda (retd).
The temporary moratorium on patrolling will ensure that incidents like patrol clashes are avoided as these could vitiate the atmosphere, Hooda added.
This is the first significant movement in negotiations to ease tensions in eight months — disengagement in Galwan valley took place in early July 2020 but it did not progress in other areas. The development has turned the spotlight on how the broader disengagement plan will unfold in other flashpoints where rival soldiers are deployed eyeball-to-eyeball and where previous attempts to reduce military tensions have failed.
PLA’s aggressive forward deployments in eastern Ladakh have hindered the Indian Army’s patrolling patterns in several areas including Depsang, Finger Area on the northern bank of Pangong Tso, Gogra and Kongka La. Regaining access to several areas that are now difficult to reach due to actions by the Chinese army along LAC is critical.
“We have agreed that both sides should achieve complete disengagement at the earliest and abide fully by the bilateral agreements and protocols. By now, the Chinese side is also fully aware of our resolve. It is, therefore, our expectation that the Chinese side will work with us to resolve these remaining issues,” Singh said.
PLA’s deployments in Depsang have hindered access of Indian soldiers to routes including the ones leading to Patrolling Points (PP) 10, 11, 11-A, 12 and 13. In 2013, PLA set up positions 19km into the Indian side of the LAC in the Depsang sector and triggered a face-off that took three weeks to resolve. The situation at Depsang predates the current round of border tensions and it is likely to be taken up separately with the Chinese, the people cited above said.
The Indian Army’s patrolling activity has also been affected in Gogra, Hot Springs and Kongka La where rival troops are forward deployed and where skeletal disengagement took place last year, but the gains could not be consolidated.
In a statement in Parliament last September, Singh said no force in the world can stop the Indian Army from patrolling its borders.
“Since last September, both sides have maintained communication with each other through military and diplomatic channels. Our objective was to effect disengagement and maintain status quo along the LAC so as to restore peace and tranquillity,” Singh said on Thursday.
He said the actions by the Chinese side since last year seriously disturbed peace and tranquillity, and impacted the overall bilateral relationship. “In our various high-level interactions with the Chinese side…we have made it clear that the foremost need was to ensure disengagement in all the friction points along the LAC in the western sector,” the minister said.
He said the Indian military responded firmly to the challenges posed by the unilateral Chinese action and showed valour and courage on both banks of Pangong Tso.
“Many strategically important points were identified and our troops positioned themselves at those hilltops and at locations which were very important from our point of view. It is because of this great bravery of our armed forces in the face of harsh adverse climatic conditions that we maintained the edge,” Singh said.
The Indian Army occupied a series of key heights to prevent the PLA from grabbing Indian territory on the south bank of Pangong Tso in a stealthy midnight move on August 29, 2020. The taking of these strategic heights allowed the Indian Army to negotiate with the Chinese side from a position of strength.
“To ensure disengagement in friction points along the LAC, it was our view that troops of both sides, who are now in close proximity, should vacate the forward deployments made in 2020 and return to the permanent and accepted bases,” Singh added.
In a show of strength, India carried out a raft of missile tests when the border row with China was at its peak last year. New Delhi also spent an extra ₹20,776 crore on the emergency purchase of weapons and systems to beef up its military capabilities to deal security challenges posed by China.
Steps were also taken on the economic front to put pressure on China after the June 15 Galwan Valley clash that left 20 Indian and an unspecified number of PLA soldiers dead.
India’s first direct economic reaction was the announcement of a ban on scores of Chinese mobile applications, including Tik-Tok, UC Browser and WeChat, on June 29, 2020. The following month India barred the award of any project to contractors from countries sharing land borders with India without prior registration with a competent authority and security clearances from the ministry of external affairs and ministry of home affairs. India has also imposed anti-dumping duties on several Chinese products.