WITHIN HOURS of Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s statement in Parliament on military disengagement in eastern Ladakh, the Indian Army released a video showing Chinese T96 tanks pulling back from Rechen La, Mukhpari and Spanggur Gap. India also pulled back its T90 and T72 tanks and infantry combat vehicles from the same locations. Singh said that the agreement for disengagement envisages both sides ending forward deployment in a “phased, coordinated and verified manner”.
He said that India did not cede territory as a part of this agreement and added that outstanding problems, including those at Hot Springs, Gogra and Depsang Plains, are to be taken up within 48 hours of the completion of the disengagement. The 10th round of military talks is expected next week, after complete disengagement. Structures built by both sides on the banks of Pangong Tso since April are to be removed; China is yet to declare this publicly, though. Moreover, going by the statement issued by Senior Colonel Wu Qian, spokesperson, Chinese ministry of national defence, the Chinese are also staying silent about the other friction points.
Retired Lieutenant General S.L. Narasimhan, member of National Security Advisory Board, said that India should remain vigilant along the line of actual control. “Clarification of the LAC will go some way in avoiding such incidents in the future,”he said. “It is hoped that China will not resort to [fresh] attempts to change the LAC unilaterally.”
With regards to the eight fingers of Pangong Tso, where slopes of barren mountains jut into the lake, it has been decided that China will retain its troop presence in the area east to Finger 8 known as Sirijap; it was captured by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in the 1962 war. Indian troops will withdraw to the permanent base at the Dhan Singh Thapa post of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police near Finger 3. The 10km stretch between Finger 3 and Finger 8 will be a no-patrol zone till a new agreement is reached.
A senior army officer said that the no-patrol zone would act as a buffer and, after disengagement, the two sides could decide on coordinated, joint or staggered patrolling in the area. According to latest videos and satellite images, the Chinese military has not only reduced its presence, but has also removed several shelters, observation posts and helipads, and a jetty it had built in the last few months between Finger 5 and Finger 8.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi argued that India had essentially given away territory to China. He said that the army used to hold Finger 4, but is now moving back to Finger 3. Congress leader and former defence minister A.K. Antony said that the government was not realising the danger of creating such buffer zones. He said that though the area between Finger 4 and Finger 8 was disputed, India had always claimed territory up to Finger 8.
Of the other friction points, military analysts flag Depsang as the most sensitive. This is because of its proximity to India’s strategic Daulat Beg Oldie base, near the Karakoram Pass. In this region, China restricts Indian troops from reaching even their traditional patrol limits at Patrolling Point 10 (PP10), PP11, PP11A, PP12 and PP13.
Former Army chief V.P. Malik said that Indian military commanders must ensure that the Chinese do not take “undue advantage or renege”. It is too early to hope for peace and tranquillity, he said. “I firmly believe, the LoC-type deployment on LAC backed by strategic and economic measures adopted already must continue,”he said. “Our military has conveyed ability and determination to hold-off the PLA.”
Former additional director general of infantry, Major General Shashi Asthana, said that China seems firm on its occupation of the Depsang Plains. This would enable it to threaten the strategic Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie Road, which is viewed as a threat to Tibet-Xinjiang-Pakistan connectivity.
“I refuse to believe that China will pull back everything,”said Maj Gen Asthana. “Given, its track record, it is possible that post winter, it would reoccupy the same areas after [now] getting the Kailash Range vacated by India. Its faster mobilisation because of better infrastructure gives the PLA an advantage over us.”Maj Gen Asthana added that the Chinese have a history of throwing agreements out the window. “Even in 1962, they feigned pulling back, but then attacked us,”he said.
Former northern army commander Lieutenant General D.S. Hooda however said that momentum is building up over disengagement and he is hopeful of similar outcomes in other friction points. “Trust is not going to come immediately,”he said. “But, it does not mean that negotiations will not move forward.”