wo senior officials said on Tuesday, Indian and Chinese military commanders reached a “mutual consensus to disengage” from all “friction areas” along the contested Line of Actual Control (LAC), which has been tense since a brutal brawl on June 15 left 20 Indian troops dead in the Ladakh sector.
But the disengagement process is likely to be “arduous and challenging,” and will require cautious movement forward in stages, said people with direct knowledge of the matter.
The deal was reached on Monday, during an 11-hour meeting of top commanders at Moldo on the LAC’s Chinese side. The talks were aimed at calming down tensions on both sides of the border and thinning the military build-up. “In a cordial, optimistic and constructive environment, the Corps Commander-level talks between India and China were conducted,” said one of the officials cited in the first instance. “Modalities have been addressed for disengagement from all conflict zones in eastern Ladakh, and both sides will move forward,” he said.
Although disengaging was a “low-hanging fruit” in some conflict areas and could be accomplished within a reasonable time frame, the “true test” will lie in restoring the status quo ante in the Finger Region where the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has built permanent bunkers, pillboxes, and observation posts, one of the persons cited in the second instance said.
China watchers believe the process of disengagement in the Gogra Post-Hot Springs and Galwan Valley sectors is likely to be less complicated, where the LAC alignment does not pose any real challenges.
The disengagement must be “equal, mutual and proportional,” said Lieutenant General Vinod Bhatia (retd), a former director general of military operations (DGMO).
“Disengagement would be a long-drawn process due to the mistrust set in after the Galwan Valley clash. This will take a lot of verification by various means at each point of disengagement to ensure the PLA has withdrawn, “added Bhatia, who served as the DGMO of the army during 2013-14.
According to Indian officials, the skirmish in the Galwan Valley in eastern Ladakh on June 15 resulted in 20 deaths on the Indian side and the PLA suffered 43 casualties, but Beijing did not confirm the deaths. A Chinese spokesman dismissed stories of “fake news” on Tuesday.
Disengagement in the Finger Region on Pangong Tso’s north bank will be troublesome compared to Gogra Post-Hot Springs and the Galwan Valley sectors where limited disengagement had begun after the first meeting of senior Indian and Chinese commanders on June 6, said former commander of the Northern Army, Lieutenant General DS Hooda (retd).
He was referring to the first meeting between Lieutenant General Harinder Singh, commander of the Leh-based 14 Corps, and Major General Liu Lin, commander of the military region of South Xinjiang. The two sides reached an understanding during that meeting to implement a de-escalation plan to ease rising tensions along the contested border, but tensions peaked in the aftermath of the skirmish on June 15. It was the first mortal conflict in 45 years between Indian and Chinese soldiers along the LAC.
“The Finger area is where the real problem lies because there the Chinese soldiers dug in their heels. It’ll be the most difficult part of the planned disengagement, ” said Hooda.
The army is concerned about the PLA ‘s presence in the Finger Area over the past seven weeks, particularly the Chinese activities between Finger 4 and Finger 8. According to a security official aware of the developments, Chinese military positions in the Finger Area restrict the scope of the Indian Army’s patrolling areas which New Delhi considers its territory.
In view of what happened in the Galwan Valley, he said the Indian Army will have to be highly vigilant during the disengagement process; senior commanders will have to track the disengagement to ensure things don’t go wrong; and diplomatic dialog will have to progress simultaneously.
Although at the meeting between senior commanders the modalities for disengagement were addressed, implementation of the strategy would take several rounds of on-the-ground talks between commanders, a second security official added.
At the meeting of corps commanders on June 22, India sought assurance from the Chinese side of ending border aggression, and the thinning of Chinese military deployments on their side of the disputed border into “depth areas.”
For the military buildup in these areas, China had deployed up to 10,000 troops including fighter jets, helicopters, tanks, artillery weapons, missile systems, and air defense radars. India matched the military moves of the neighbours. “Neither India nor China are likely to thin their deployments in rear regions immediately, given how volatile the disputed border has been,” added the second security official.
On Tuesday, Army Chief General Manoj Mukund Naravane arrived in Leh, the headquarters of 14 Corps in Ladakh, during a two-day visit focused on conducting a sensitive sector safety review. Last week Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria made a low-key visit to Ladakh to review the preparedness of the Indian Air Force in the area.