In what would mark a significant breakthrough in the over nine-month-long standoff in eastern Ladakh, the first phase of disengagement between Indian and Chinese troops, from both, the north and the south bank of Pangong Tso, is complete and the next round of the senior military commander-level talks are scheduled to be held on Saturday.
The tenth round of the talks, which were supposed to be held within 48 hours of the completion of the first phase of disengagement, would be held on the Chinese side of the Chushul-Moldo Border Personnel Meeting Point (BPM) at 10 am on Saturday morning to discuss other friction points.
A senior military source, aware of the details of the disengagement process, told The Indian Express that both sides had agreed that the first phase of disengagement was to be completed by February 19, and the Corps Commanders were to meet by February 21, so the meeting tomorrow will be “as per schedule”.
When asked if this means that troops from the frontline on the north and south banks of the lake have also moved back, vacating the heights, the source said that to be correct, “as the entire issue was about the troops on heights”.
The four-step disengagement included first pulling back armour, artillery and other heavy equipment, followed by infantry.
Also, on Friday morning, People’s Daily, China, a media group affiliated to the Chinese government said that “four Chinese soldiers, who were sacrificed in last June’s border conflict, were posthumously awarded honorary titles and first-class merit citations, Central Military Commission announced Friday. A colonel, who led them and seriously injured, was conferred with an honorary title.” This is the first time that China or its state-affiliated media has put a number on the number of PLA soldiers who died during the clashes in the Galwan Valley on June 15, in which India had lost 20 soldiers.
In the next round of talks, the focus will be on disengagement from other friction areas, which include Patrolling Point 15 (PP15) and PP17A in the Hot Springs-Gogra area, and Depsang Plains. Even as military officials have reiterated multiple times that the dispute in Depsang Plains pre-dates the current crisis, the area is strategically sensitive as it is close to India’s Daulat Beg Oldie post and airstrip, and the Durbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie (DSDBO) road, and not far from Karakoram Pass in the north.
In a statement in the Parliament on February 11, informing both the Houses about the disengagement process, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh had said about the agreement on disengagement in the North and South Bank of the Pangong Lake that “it has also been agreed to convene the next meeting of the Senior Commanders within 48 hours after the complete disengagement in the Pangong Lake area so as to address and resolve all other remaining issues”.
He had said that as per the agreement for disengagement in the Pangong lake area, it “envisages that both sides will cease their forward deployments in a phased, coordinated and verified manner” and the “Chinese side will keep its troop presence in the North Bank area to east of Finger 8”.
“Reciprocally, the Indian troops will be based at their permanent base at Dhan Singh Thapa Post near Finger 3. Similar action would be taken in the South Bank area by both sides. These are mutual and reciprocal steps and any structures that had been built by both sides since April 2020 in both North and South Bank area will be removed and the landforms will be restored.”
There will be a moratorium on military activities by both sides in the North Bank, including patrolling to the traditional areas, Singh had said, adding that “patrolling will be resumed only when both sides reach an agreement in diplomatic and military talks that would be held subsequently”.
The scheduling of the tenth round of talks would mean that troops from both sides have vacated the heights near Finger 4 on the north bank of Pangong Tso, and Indian troops have also vacated the heights of Magar Hill, Gurung Hill, Mukhpari, Rechin La and Rezang La, in the Chushul sub-sector that had been occupied by them in August-end, that allowed India to dominate the strategically important Spanggur Gap and China’s Moldo garrison.
It was this action that provided India leverage to negotiate that China pulls its troops back to Finger 8 on the north bank, where India claims the Line of Actual Control passes through, and is 8 km east of Finger 4, where China had positioned its troops since May 2020.
In an email interview to The Indian Express on Thursday, Northern Army Commander Lt General YK Joshi had said that for the first time “the agreement has been put in writing, ratified by higher headquarters and then put into action” and every action was being verified daily and confirmed during Flag Meetings, and UAVs, satellite images and recce missions of Air Force are also aiding the verification. The process, he said, has “no space for doubts or non-adherence” and added that the PLA had demonstrated “sincerity of purpose”.
PLA will not be carrying out any activity, military or otherwise in the areas claimed by us, and will restore the entire landform within our claim line and dismantling all the structures that were created post April 2020, he said
Joshi mentioned that earlier, the PLA was not willing to “vacate this area between Finger 4 and Finger 8, but once the tables were turned on August 29/30, it was forced to negotiate as per our terms”. He mentioned that in August end, the “Indian Army’s Special Forces occupied the most dominating features of the Rechin La-Rezang La complex on the Kailash Range, which helped it dominate the PLA’s Moldo garrison and areas beyond” and also occupied the heights dominating PLA positions along Finger 4.
“We were able to place tanks at Rechin La and Rezang La which was unthinkable before. This turned the tables on the PLA and brought them to the negotiating table,” said Joshi, mentioning that vacating this position will not put India in a disadvantageous position.
“We occupied (those heights) with a purpose to push the negotiations to disengagement. It was meant to give us an advantage, but it cannot be an advantage in perpetuity. We achieved what we wished to achieve, namely the disengagement in the north bank.”
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