NEW DELHI: India will keep a close watch and carefully verify over the next 10 days whether Chinese soldiers pull back further for concrete “disengagement” between the rival troops in eastern Ladakh before discussing “de-escalation” at the next corps commander-level meeting.
The fifth round of talks between 14 Corps commander Lt Gen Harinder Singh and South Xinjiang Military District chief Maj Gen Liu Lin will be held after the “partial disengagement” at Pangong Tso and Gogra-Hot Springs, under way since the beginning of this month, “hopefully” leads to a “complete disengagement”, top sources said.
“The People’s Liberation Army (PLA), in the fourth round on July 14, indicated its willingness to move back further at Pangong Tso and Gogra-Hot Springs. But it’s consulting its politico-military hierarchy. We will have to wait to see how much it translates into actual action on the ground,” a source said.
This was reinforced by a rare official statement by the Indian Army on Thursday, which said India and China “remain committed to the objective of complete disengagement” but the stepwise process was “intricate” and would require “constant verification” at different stages. There is a huge trust deficit between the two sides after the bloody clashes in Galwan Valley on June 15 and accounts for the Indian emphasis on verification.
The carefully worded statement came a day after the high-powered China Study Group, which includes national security adviser Ajit Doval, foreign minister S Jaishankar and Army chief Gen M M Naravane, reviewed the outcome of the July 14 talks and discussed the future strategy, as reported by TOI on Thursday.
The statement significantly did not mention the word ‘de-escalation’ to clearly imply that the mutual withdrawal of troops, tanks, artillery guns and other heavy weaponry from the ‘rear areas’ along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) is not on the cards for now.
The foreign ministry on Thursday said the disengagement process currently under way was “specifically aimed at addressing face-off situations and close-up deployments” between the rival troops. “Both sides have agreed at specific points to re-deploy towards their regular posts on their respective sides of the LAC. These are mutually agreed reciprocal actions to be taken by both sides. It is an ongoing process,” it said.
This mutual re-deployment should not be “misrepresented” since there is “absolutely no change” with respect to India’s position. “Any unilateral attempts to change the status quo along the LAC are not acceptable,” the ministry said.
Sources said only the troop disengagement at “Patrolling Point-14 (PP-14)” in Galwan Valley, the site of the June 15 clashes, has been fully completed to India’s satisfaction till now, with all PLA troops withdrawing to their side of the LAC.
There is also substantial progress at the face-off sites at PP-15 and 17A in the Gogra-Hot Springs area, with the bulk of the rival troops mutually pulling back to create temporary no-patrolling zones extending 2-3 km. “A further pullback has been agreed to for complete disengagement in these areas,” a source said.
The north bank of Pangong Tso, however, remains the major problem. PLA troops have so far only moved back from the face-off site at the “base” of “Finger-4” to “Finger-5” (mountainous spurs), without fully vacating the ridgeline that dominates the area.
India wants the PLA soldiers to move back by about 8km to their bases at Sirijap-I and II to the east of “Finger-8”, where the LAC runs north to south. Indian troops have also moved back westwards towards their Dhan Singh Thapa post between “Finger-2” and “Finger-3”.
Apart from the face-off sites, another major concern is the way the PLA is continuing to block Indian soldiers from going to their traditional “Patrolling Points 10, 11, 12 and 13” in the Depsang Plains — a strategically located tabletop plateau to the north of Galwan — after intruding deep into what India considers its territory. India is pushing for the “old norm” of not blocking each other’s patrols to be restored in the Depsang area.
The eventual de-induction of the around 30,000 troops and heavy weaponry amassed by the two sides in the “depth areas” along the 1,597km frontier in eastern Ladakh is still nowhere on the horizon.