Chinese soldiers “have removed some tents and seem to be pulling back” towards ‘Finger-5’ (fingers are mountainous spurs) from ‘Finger-4’ on the north bank of Pangong lake, in accordance with Phase-I of the de-escalation plan thrashed out between the rival corps commanders on June 30, top government sources told TOI on Monday. This is significant as the confrontation here is seen to be particularly sticky to resolve.
The developments on Monday came after a two-hour discussion between national security advisor Ajit Doval and Chinese state councillor and foreign minister Wang Yi on Sunday. The sometimes tense conversation ended with the two sides agreeing to disengage. Importantly, the Chinese troops have moved back from their current positions which India has held to be violative of agreements between the two countries.
A ‘buffer zone’ has already been created at ‘Patrolling Point-14 (PP-14) in the Galwan Valley region, the site of bloody clashes on June 15, while similar arrangements are underway at the other ‘friction points’ of PP-15 and 17A in the general Gogra-Hot Springs area.
“The PLA has removed its tents and temporary structures at PP-14 to pull back around 300 troops and several vehicles by about 1.5 km to their side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC),” said a high-level military source.
But India is being extremely cautious this time, and will verify each step with physical monitoring on the ground as well as through drones and satellites. “A close watch has to be kept to ascertain if genuine and lasting disengagement is finally underway. China, after all, has taken to claiming the entire Galwan Valley in recent days,” said the source. India has consistently said its troops are aware of the LAC alignment and China must restore the status quo as it existed before the build-up of tensions.
The setting up of the no-military presence buffer zones at all flashpoints in the high-altitude region, depending on the terrain and mountain features in each area, will mark the completion of Phase-I of the proposed de-escalation.
There will then be a ‘stabilisation period’ of three to four weeks for each side to monitor the progress and resolve any lingering issues through more meetings to bridge the huge trust deficit between the two armies. “PLA is adhering to Phase-I so far. It will be a long-drawn process in several phases, with the Chinese presence in the Depsang Plains being taken up later,” said a senior official in the defence establishment.
“Further diplomatic and military talks will be held for the eventual de-induction of the rival military build-ups along the LAC. If everything goes well, the final de-induction should take place by September-October,” he added.
India’s guard will be up. A similar de-escalation had gone awry on June 15 after the PLA reneged on the agreement to dismantle an observation post on Indian territory near the ‘Y-junction’ of the Shyok and Galwan rivers, which is around 1.5 km below PP-14. The ensuing clashes led to the death of 20 Indian soldiers and an unspecified number of PLA casualties.
Pangong Tso also remains a major concern. Around 3,000 PLA soldiers have built a large number of fortifications as well as taken the dominating heights after occupying the entire 8-km stretch from Finger-4 to 8 on the north bank of the lake since early-May.
PLA troops, for now, will only move back to Finger-5 instead of going back to their permanent locations east of Finger-8 towards its Sirijap bases. Though India remains firm the LAC runs north to south at Finger-8, the “immediate aim” is to first ease the heightened tensions and reduce the scope for violence by creation of buffer zones, military sources said.
The mutual troop pullback in Phase-I includes dismantling fortifications and other structures built over the last two months. “The stabilisation period after Phase-I will hopefully make it conducive for the next phase to be launched. More meetings at different levels will be held, including at the level of corps commanders, to decide the timelines and modalities for the subsequent phases,” added one of the sources.