Indian official says tanks, armoured elements being withdrawn, but troops remain.
China’s military announced on Wednesday that front line troops of India and China had begun disengaging in a “synchronised and organised” manner from the north and southbanks of Pangong lake, where both sides have been locked in a stand-off for months which, an official source in Delhi said, was the first step in the long process of disengagement and de-escalation.
This restarts the stalled process of disengagement in the most protracted military standoffs between India and China in decades that has resulted in the death of 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese casualties at Galwan on June 15, 2020.
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh would make a statement in the Rajya Sabha on Thursday on the situation in Ladakh, his office said on Twitter.
This is the first phase of disengagement with some tanks and armoured elements on the South bank being withdrawn as well as thinning down of troops on the north bank, a Government of India source said. However, troops continue to remain in key positions.
It would be a multi-step process for disengagement and de-escalation along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and wouldl take time, said a second government source.
People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Senior Colonel Wu Qian, spokesman for the Ministry of Defence, said in a statement issued in Beijing: “The Chinese and Indian front line troops at the southern and northern banks of the Pangong Tso Lake start synchronised and organised disengagement from February 10. This move is in accordance with the consensus reached by both sides at the 9th round of China-India Corps Commander Level Meeting.”
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said in a statement: “According to the consensus reached at the Chinese and Indian Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Moscow and the ninth round of commander-level talks between the two sides, the front-line troops of the Chinese and Indian militaries began to conduct simultaneous and planned disengagement in the Pangong Lake area on February 10. We hope the Indian side will work with China to meet each other halfway, strictly implement the consensus reached between the two sides and ensure the smooth implementation of the disengagement process.”
Verification is the key
Indian government officials said verification after each step would be the key for the process to go forward. While aerial monitoring, using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), would be done, on the ground, verification at each step would also be done to ensure that the Chinese fully honour the understanding.
On the south bank, both sides had deployed tanks and armoured vehicles in close proximity, within few hundred metres, after tensions went up end of August.
During the ninth round of talks held on January 24, both sides were discussing a broad disengagement plan that had been worked out but held up over some specific issues. The talks took place after a long delay with the previous round held on November 6 last.
While China had insisted on a focus on the south bank (where India in late August moved to occupy strategic heights in response to the PLA’s transgressions in May north of the lake), India had stressed the need for a comprehensive disengagement plan covering all friction points in eastern Ladakh.
The focus of the Corps Commander talks has been on the north and south banks, which has seen tensions with warning shots also fired in the south last year, the first firing incidents along the border since 1975.
As part of the first phase of disengagement last June, both sides had pulled back troops by equal distance from Patrolling Points (PP) 14 in Galwan valley and PP15 in Gogra-Hot Springs. It was during the disengagement at Galwan that violent clashes occurred.
Since the stand-off began in early May, China has moved a large number of troops and equipment close to the LAC in addition to the ingress by its troops inside Indian territory at various places in eastern Ladakh. On the north bank, Chinese troops made ingress from Finger 8 up to Finger 4, blocking Indian patrols. India holds till Finger 4 but claims till Finger 8 as per alignment of the LAC.
Apart from Pongong lake, another major area of concern for India is the strategic Depsang Plains, where Chinese troops have been blocking Indian Army patrols from going up to the Patrolling Points (PP) 10 to 13 beyond the Y-junction.