India and China have broadly agreed to restart the gradual and verifiable troop disengagement from ‘friction points’ in Galwan Valley and Gogra-Hot Springs areas of eastern Ladakh, which got derailed the last time after Chinese soldiers reneged on the pullback agreement, leading to the bloody clashes on June 15.
However, there has been no breakthrough as yet in defusing the major troop confrontation at Pangong Tso, where PLA soldiers have built a large number of fortifications as well as taken the dominating heights after occupying the ‘Finger-4 to 8 area’ (mountainous spurs separated by 8-km distance) on the north bank of the lake since early May.
Official sources on Wednesday said “both sides emphasised the need for an expeditious, phased and step-wise de-escalation as a priority” during the 12-hour marathon meeting between 14 Corps commander Lt-General Harinder Singh and South Xinjiang Military District chief Major General Liu Lin at Chushul on Tuesday. This was the third such meeting since June 6.
It will, however, be a long-drawn process, with a lot of finetuning yet to be done. Moreover, India will be extremely cautious this time, closely verifying each de-escalation and disengagement step at the troop confrontation sites on Indian territory at Patrolling Points (PP) 14, 15 and 17A in the Galwan and Hot Springs areas.
The trust deficit is huge due to the premeditated attack on Indian soldiers near PP-14 in Galwan Valley on June 15, in which 20 Indian soldiers led by Colonel Santosh Babu and an unspecified number of Chinese troops were killed.
“After agreeing to the disengagement plan for Galwan and Hot Springs during the June 6 and 22 meetings between the corps commanders, the PLA promises did not translate into concrete action on the ground. Pangong Tso also remains a tough nut to crack, with the PLA in no hurry to move back,” said a source.
The top military meeting, held in a “business-like manner” on Tuesday, was in keeping with the “agreement” between Indian and Chinese foreign ministers during their June 17 conversation that “the overall situation would be handled in a responsible manner” and both sides would “sincerely’ implement the disengagement understanding of June 6”.
As per the proposed disengagement plan, the rival troops will gradually move back 2.5 to 3 km in phases to de-escalate tensions at the face-off sites, which will be followed later by de-induction of the huge military build-up along the LAC.
The PLA has deployed well over 20,000 soldiers from its 4th Motorised Infantry Division and 6th Mechanised Infantry Division as well as ‘reserves’ from the Western Theatre Command along the LAC in eastern Ladakh, especially in the strategically-located Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO)-Depsang sector.
Apart from also blocking Indian patrols beyond the ‘Bottleneck’ area in Depsang after intruding deeply into Indian territory, the PLA has simultaneously stepped up activities in the middle (Uttarakhand and Himachal) and eastern (Sikkim and Arunachal) sectors of the 3,488-km LAC.
India has undertaken ‘mirror deployments’ by inducting three additional infantry divisions (each has 10,000-12,000 soldiers), artillery guns, surface-to-air missile systems, tanks and armoured vehicles in eastern Ladakh alone, along with deploying fighter as well as attack and heavy-lift helicopters in forward bases, as was reported by TOI last month.
Government sources said the discussions on Tuesday reflected the commitment of both sides to reduce the tensions along the LAC. “But the process of dis-engagement along the LAC is going to be complex,” a source said.
“More meetings are expected, both at the military and at the diplomatic level in the future, to arrive at a mutually agreeable solution and to ensure peace and tranquillity along the LAC as per bilateral agreements and protocols,” he added.