Suggesting that the standoff with Chinese troops along the Ladakh frontier could continue for a while, the Indian Army Thursday said while the two sides remain “committed to the objective of complete disengagement”, this “process is intricate and requires constant verification”.
In a terse statement on the fourth round of talks between XIV Corps Commander Lt General Harinder Singh and South Xinjiang Military Region Commander Major General Liu Lin, the Army said the two sides “are taking it forward through regular meetings at diplomatic and military level”.
This, in effect, means more meetings will be needed to take the disengagement process forward, especially in the Pangong Tso area where the Chinese came 8 km west of Finger 8 which India says marks the LAC. While they have vacated the Finger 4 base, PLA troops continue to occupy the ridgeline there in significant numbers.
On the fourth round of talks in Chushul which stretched into the early hours of Wednesday, the Army said, “Senior Commanders reviewed the progress on implementation of the first phase of disengagement and discussed further steps to ensure complete disengagement”.
Hours later, the Ministry of External Affairs said the two sides discussed complete disengagement “at the earliest”.
Indicating the long-drawn nature of the negotiations, MEA spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said the process of disengagement is “complex”.
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On concerns that suspension of patrolling may lead to yielding control of territory to Chinese troops, Srivastava said: “The disengagement process currently underway in the western sector is specifically aimed at addressing faceoff situations and close-up deployments of troops along the LAC. It is based on an understanding between senior military commanders.”
“Both sides have agreed at specific points to re-deploy towards their regular posts on their respective sides of the LAC. These are mutually agreed reciprocal actions to be taken by both sides,” the spokesperson said.
“It is an ongoing process. This mutual re-deployment should not be misrepresented. There is absolutely no change with respect to India’s position on the Line of Actual Control. We are fully committed to observing and respecting the LAC. Any unilateral attempts to change the status quo along the LAC are not acceptable,” the MEA spokesperson said amid concerns that the LAC had been moved westward.
“The two sides will continue their diplomatic and military engagements to achieve these outcomes,” he said.
Sources in the Army said that after further disengagement takes place and is verified, the two commanders may meet again in a fortnight from now to discuss a resolution to the standoff.
A top source in the Army said that “India in no uncertain terms has said it has to be status quo ante (return to locations before standoff), but because of the losses that have taken place, there is a problem of trust” – a reference to the June 15 incident in Galwan Valley in which 20 Army personnel were killed in clashes with Chinese troops.
In the Army’s assessment, the top source said, “Finger 4 may linger for some time, but there is no choice” and Chinese troops will have to move back east of Finger 8. The Chinese have built structures in the 8-km stretch between Finger 4 and Finger 8. While they have moved towards Finger 5 as part of disengagement, they continue to occupy positions on the Finger 4 ridgeline.
As part of the mutual disengagement Indian forces have also moved westward. “It will take time to achieve what India is saying,” the top source said, adding that complete disengagement has taken place only at two of the four friction points.
According to the source, Patrolling Points 17A (PP17A) “at Hot Springs also has 50 troops still sitting within a kilometre of each other,” even though the “agreement has achieved” that most troops have moved back.
At PP14 in Galwan Valley “troops from both sides are on their side, and nobody in the disputed area… there is a gap of around 4 km between them”. Similarly, at PP15, the source said, nobody is in the disputed area and “the gap is almost around 10 km” between troops of the two sides.
The issue of Depsang Plains, sources said, was not discussed at the meeting since the Corps Commanders focused on disengagement from the four friction areas. Depsang, sources said, may be taken up in the next phase when de-escalation is discussed.
Chinese troops have blocked access of Indian troops to the traditional patrolling limits in Depsang Plains, not very far from the strategic Indian outpost at Daulat Beg Oldie near the Karakoram Pass in the north.
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