Updated: January 27, 2021 7:20:27 am
HAVING WITHSTOOD the peak of winter face to face with Chinese troops in eastern Ladakh, India has toughened its stance on negotiations with China over withdrawal of troops from friction points in the region in the nearly ten-month border standoff, sources told The Indian Express.
During Sunday’s military commander-level talks on the Chinese side of the Chushul-Moldo meeting point, India, sources said, rejected China’s last proposal on troop withdrawals and insisted that any disengagement would have to be a “simultaneous and step-by-step effort” by both sides.
Besides, India proposed that from the next meeting, detailed discussions should also be held on the withdrawal of Chinese troops from Depsang Plains.
Sources said that in the latest round of talks, India said it would not agree to the Chinese proposal that their troops would withdraw to Finger 8 on the north bank of Pangong Tso after India withdraws from the south bank of the lake.
China, which is currently occupying positions till Finger 4 on the north bank, had made this proposal during the eighth round of military talks on November 6, 2020. It had said both sides would vacate the friction point on Finger 4 with India restricting itself to Finger 3 and China going back to Finger 8, with neither side patrolling the area in between.
“It was made clear that this proposal was not acceptable as it was conditional on our withdrawal first. We have told them this time that any disengagement can only be a simultaneous and step-by-step effort. We can’t be asked to vacate an entire region at one go and then wait for China to keep its end of the bargain. But this meeting was more positive than the last one. An in-principle agreement on a mechanism was achieved by the two sides during the meeting. It has been agreed that each step of withdrawal will be physically verified by both sides before moving on to the next step,” a Government source said, underlining the trust deficit on disengagement.
According to sources, details of this disengagement mechanism — in terms of which height or area will be vacated and the scale — will be decided during diplomatic engagements and future military level talks.
“It has also been made clear that in the next round of talks, Depsang will also be discussed and that the entire eastern Ladakh region will be part of negotiations. Until now, they have insisted on disengagement at Pangong Tso where there is eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation,” sources said.
The Depsang issue, officials maintained, predates the current standoff by several years. In Depsang Plains, which is close to the strategically sensitive Daulat Beg Oldie post near the Karakoram Pass in the north, the Chinese have been blocking Indian soldiers at a place called Bottleneck from accessing Patrolling Points (PP) 10, 11, 11A, 12 and 13.
India’s current position, sources in the security establishment said, is bolstered by the fact that its troops withstood harsh winter and that there is no compulsion now to cede ground. Besides, they said, the Chinese have been brought to the negotiating table by India’s preemptive capture of key heights on the south bank of Pangong Tso in the Rezang La sector.
“It has brought China under pressure. We are overlooking some of their key posts from the heights we have captured. It is the only leverage we have over China for negotiations. It can’t be wasted on pushing them to Finger 8 alone. This could be a long process, but we have no option if we do not want matters to escalate in the summer,” sources said.
A Home Ministry official told The Indian Express that this push in talks was laid down over the last couple of months when both sides agreed to thinning of troops at friction points and across the region. “There has been about 30 per cent reduction in troops by both sides. It was imperative for both sides given the harsh winter and inhospitable conditions at those heights. Troops have to be rotated much faster in these conditions, and reduced strength at friction points helps,” the official said.
On Monday, the Army described the ninth round of military level talks held the day before as “positive, practical and constructive”, and said it had “enhanced mutual trust and understanding”. It said in a statement that the “two sides had a candid and in-depth exchange of views on disengagement along the Line of Actual Control in the Western Sector of China-India border areas”.
“The two sides agreed to push for an early disengagement of the frontline troops. They also agreed to follow the important consensus of their state leaders, maintain the good momentum of dialogue and negotiation, and hold the 10th round of the Corps Commander Level Meeting at an early date to jointly advance de-escalation,” it said.
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