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Thursday, February 25, 2021

Pangong disengagement: Delhi cautious, points to work in progress; military, diplomatic moves shaped result

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh's measured tone in Parliament Thursday underscored the need to avoid any kind of chest thumping from the ruling establishment pending the resolution of unresolved issues.

Written by Ravish Tiwari , Shubhajit Roy , Deeptiman Tiwary | New Delhi |
Updated: February 12, 2021 11:59:08 am

While the start of the disengagement process at Pangong Tso is a significant breakthrough in the nine-month military standoff with China, New Delhi wants to avoid any chest thumping, its tone measured as it treads carefully to achieve its objective of returning to the pre-standoff situation on the ground.

“This is a work in progress. Chest thumping is not desirable in these situations. This is just one step towards the April 2020 situation. One has to tread cautiously as there are several unresolved issues,” a government source said.

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s measured tone in Parliament Thursday underscored the need to avoid any kind of chest thumping from the ruling establishment pending the resolution of unresolved issues.

While armoured units south of Pangong Tso have started moving out, sources said there has also been some thinning of troops but personnel at Rechin La and Rezang La will remain at their current positions until disengagement happens to the satisfaction of New Delhi. These are key positions occupied by Indian forces in August last year to counter the Chinese build-up along the LAC.

On Saturday, the two sides will verify the progress claimed by each side, following which the next course of action will be decided.

“The agreement is to simultaneously withdraw a fixed portion of artillery and troops from specific points. This will be verified after each side confirms the same has been achieved. The next day, ground commanders will meet again and decide the next course of action, fixing a timeline and extent of phased withdrawal at the next point,” a government official said.

Tanks start disengaging south of lake, north bank stretch no-go zone for now

The final breakthrough in the diplomatic-military level talks deadlock came at the January 24 meeting of the Indian and Chinese Corps Commanders, the 9th round of military-level talks, sources told The Indian Express.

Sources said the combined team of military and diplomats in both formats of engagement — the Corps Commander-level talks and the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs (WMCC) — helped in formulating a “coherent response” to the Chinese challenge, both militarily and diplomatically.

After the breakthrough in the 9th round of talks, the two sides worked on the details and decided to go-ahead with the disengagement on Tuesday.

Sources said the disengagement process at the Pangong Tso is expected to take “about two weeks or so”, and 48 hours after it is completed, the Corps Commanders will meet again.

Until then, local commanders will verify the disengagement process “every day” — as part of the monitoring and verification process agreed upon by the two sides.

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The Indian side is going to be extra cautious since the verification process had gone awry the last time — it had led to clashes in Galwan Valley where 20 Indian soldiers lost their lives. The Chinese too lost an unspecified number of soldiers in the incident.

The disengagement process will include two steps: first, withdrawal of deployed assets including tanks and other military equipment and troops, and second, “level the ground”, essentially dismantling bunkers and posts and returning it to the pre-May 2020 position.

While the harsh Ladakh winter and the toll on man and machine on the two sides is said to have been one of the factors that shaped the outcome, sources said Delhi’s negotiating position was based on three elements — first, putting military pressure through heavy deployment; second, staying power in the inhospitable terrain; and third, linking the border situation to the larger bilateral relationship.

“A combination of all three elements seems to have worked,” a source said. “And it’s not as if the winter in those heights and terrain is over. It continues till March, and that’s why it was decided to disengage after a gruelling three-and-half months,” sources said.

A “lot of work”, sources said, is left at the other friction points, including the Depsang Plains.“This is a good beginning, and if this withdrawal becomes successful, it will bridge the trust deficit, and will make it easier to disengage at the other friction points where the standoff continues,” another source said.

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