After a promising start in the Pangong Tso area, the disengagement process between the two armies has hit a wall as a result of PLA’s reluctance to pull back its forward deployed troops from Hot Springs, Gogra and Depsang, and restore the status quo ante of April 2020.(AFP)
After a promising start in the Pangong Tso area, the disengagement process between the two armies has hit a wall as a result of PLA’s reluctance to pull back its forward deployed troops from Hot Springs, Gogra and Depsang, and restore the status quo ante of April 2020.(AFP)

PLA can employ troops in forward areas at short notice, says army chief Naravane

  • Both armies have 50,000-60,000 troops each in the Ladakh theatre, and deployments haven’t thinned after the disengagement in Pangong Tso, Naravane said.
By Rahul Singh, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
PUBLISHED ON MAY 28, 2021 09:17 PM IST

Despite the pullback by the Indian and Chinese armies at strategic heights on both banks of Pangong Tso in February, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) continues to deploy its soldiers and mechanised elements including tanks in its “immediate depth” across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) from where the PLA “can employ them [in forward areas] at short notice,” army chief General Manoj Mukund Naravane said on Friday.

Immediate depth refers to a distance of 150km to 200km from the contested LAC.

“Hence, our troops are also in a high state of readiness and alert. Things appear to be stable as of now, but that doesn’t mean one can become complacent. We are keeping an eye on the developments there. Take the case of rotation of PLA units. A new unit may come but the old one may not go back,” the army chief said.

Both armies have 50,000-60,000 troops each in the Ladakh theatre, and deployments haven’t thinned after the disengagement in Pangong Tso, Naravane said.

India and China have been locked in a standoff for over a year in the region, and are currently negotiating a withdrawal of troops and weapons from friction points on the disputed border.

The focus of current military talks is on negotiating the next steps of a complex disengagement process that was completed in Pangong Tso in mid-February with the pullback of frontline troops and weapons. The Indian Army is now focussing on resolving outstanding problems with PLA at other friction points.

After a promising start in the Pangong Tso area, the disengagement process between the two armies has hit a wall as a result of PLA’s reluctance to pull back its forward deployed troops from Hot Springs, Gogra and Depsang, and restore the status quo ante of April 2020.

“We should not expect results after every round of talks. Disengagement at Pangong Tso took place after several rounds of talks. The process to hold the next round of talks (12th round) is on. It’s taking time because of the Covid situation but the talks will happen,” Naravane said.

The 11th round of talks between corps commander-ranked officers was held on April 9. During those talks, the Indian Army told PLA that disengagement at all friction points on the disputed border was crucial for the de-escalation of the conflict.

“Our stance while arriving at disengagement in Pangong Tso area or in the remaining areas is constant and there is no change in it. We want the status quo ante of April 2020 to be restored. The Indian Army has made it clear to the PLA that de-escalation will only be considered once disengagement is completed to the mutual satisfaction of both sides,” the army chief said.

The Indian Army’s patrolling activity has been affected in Hot Springs and Gogra, where rival troops are forward deployed and where skeletal disengagement took place last year, but the gains could not be consolidated.

The PLA’s deployments in Depsang have also hindered access of Indian soldiers to routes including the ones leading to Patrolling Points (PP) 10, 11, 11-A, 12 and 13. To be sure, the problems at Depsang predate the current border standoff

“The areas being remote, there is a requirement to arrive at a solution and also avoid recurrence of such a situation. The resolution should honour mutual sensitivity and interests,” he said.

Disengagement of frontline troops on the LAC is the first crucial step to restore peace and tranquillity in eastern Ladakh.

“Disengagement is just the first phase of a broader, more comprehensive plan of establishing the status quo ante of April 2020. It will be followed by de-escalation and finally de-induction of forces. We continue to remain vigilant,” Naravane said.

The two armies held the first round of military talks almost a year ago on June 6, 2020, to resolve the border row. However, the Galwan Valley skirmish on June 15, 2020, created severe complications and dashed hopes of any significant breakthrough. The brutal clash that left 20 Indian soldiers and an undisclosed number of Chinese troops dead created a huge trust deficit between the two sides.

Trust levels are bound to be low when a major standoff takes place between two countries leading to casualties on both sides, the army chief said. “However, it is always our endeavour that this trust deficit should not hinder the negotiation process. As two professional armies, it is imperative that we resolve the situation and make progress to restore trust at the earliest,” Naravane said.

Asked to comment on the situation at the LAC in other sectors, especially Naku La in Sikkim, the army chief said the situation was peaceful “without any major instances of violence”.

“A few areas, due to differing perceptions of the LAC, have the potential of flaring up but are managed by local commanders of both sides. Aggression is not the solution to any problem. Problems can only be solved by mutual understanding and respect,” he said.

On China building villages near the LAC, the army chief said it appeared to be part of a plan to have more population in border areas. China has combined a policy of building villages close to the LAC from Xinjiang to Bhutan with simultaneously bolstering military facilities and dual-use infrastructure such as airports to keep up the pressure on India, HT reported on May 21.

On PLA building infrastructure in the Ladakh theatre, Naravane said, “They never had so many people there before. So, they need to build additional infrastructure to house the additional people. We are also creating infrastructure on our side – habitat, water supply and electrification.”

The army chief said the Indian Army was keeping tabs on Chinese training areas that are at a depth of 1,000 km to 1,500 km from the LAC and the PLA’s activities there. “This is the training season. The PLA has brought additional formations to these areas for training. They should go back in September,” he said.

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