A day after China’s defence ministry announced that the Indian Army and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had begun “synchronised and organised disengagement” from their nine-month-long confrontation in the Pangong Tso sector, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh made a similar announcement in Parliament on Thursday, while asserting India has not conceded anything to China.
“Our sustained talks with China have led to agreement on disengagement on the north and south banks of Pangong Lake. After this agreement, India-China will remove forward deployments in a phased, coordinated manner,” said the defence minister in his statement in the Rajya Sabha.
Rajnath said as part of the settlement, the PLA would remain east of Finger 8 in the North Bank area, while Indian troops would remain west of Finger 3, at their base called Dhan Singh Thapa Post.
Effectively, this designates as a buffer zone a 10-kilometre stretch of territory between Finger 3 and Finger 8. The Indian Army has patrolled this area since the 1962 war with China but will now be disallowed to.
Perhaps for this reason, Rajnath Singh refrained from claiming in his statement that the pre-April status quo — a core Indian demand so far — had been restored. Instead, he claimed that the disengagement would “substantially restore” the situation to that before the standoff began last year.
South of Pangong Tso, the PLA will vacate the features of Helmet and Black Top, while the Indian Army will climb down from the dominating features of Point 5167, Bump and Magar Hill that India seized at the beginning of August.
“I want to assure this House that in these talks we have not conceded anything,” Rajnath asserted. “The agreement that we have been able to reach with the Chinese side for disengagement in the Pangong lake area envisages that both sides will cease their forward deployments in a phased, coordinated and verified manner.”
This move is in accordance with the consensus reached by both sides at the ninth round of China-India Corps Commander-level meeting, the statement from China’s defence ministry had stated on Wednesday. A 10th round of talks is likely to be scheduled soon, say Army sources.
The disengagement agreement covers only the Pangong Tso sector in Central Ladakh, but makes no mention of Depsang sector, near Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) in Northern Ladakh, where PLA troops have crossed the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and established themselves 15-18 km inside territory that India has always claimed and patrolled. Since April, the PLA has blocked Indian troops from accessing Patrolling Points 10, 11, 12, 12A and 13 on the LAC.
The Indian Army regards Depsang as a critical sector, since controlling this would provide the PLA with a springboard to capture DBO, cut off India from the Karakoram Pass, and progress operations towards India’s vital Siachen Glacier sector.
Besides Depsang, the disengagement agreement is also silent on the Gogra/Hot Springs sector, where the Indian Army believes China is in encroachment of Indian territory.
“The House should also know that there are still some outstanding issues with regard to deployment and patrolling at some other points along the LAC in Eastern Ladakh,” said Rajnath on Thursday.
The defence minister acknowledged the grit of Indian soldiers who, along with Tibetan-origin guerrillas of the Special Frontier Force, occupied dominating heights on the Ladakh Range in August. This put the PLA at a disadvantage south of the Pangong Tso Lake and provided India with a vital bargaining chip.
“Many strategically important points were identified and our troops positioned themselves at those hill tops and at locations which were very important from our point of view. It is because of this great bravery of our armed forces that we maintained the edge,” said Rajnath.
He also saluted the resilience of the Indian soldiers who spent the winter in the freezing conditions of mountain-tops in Ladakh. “I would like this House to join me in paying gratitude to our armed forces who have shown grit and resolve under these extremely harsh climatic conditions of Ladakh which has resulted in the present agreement,” he said.
While the start of disengagement involves the troops in contact on the front lines in Ladakh, there remain close to 100,000 troops from the PLA and the Indian Army that were deployed behind the front lines as reserves in case fighting broke out. It is likely that these would only be withdrawn after successful disengagement by the troops in contact.
The Chinese aggression since April 2020, including the Galwan River Valley clash on June 14 that killed 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of PLA soldiers, has catalysed major organisational and operational changes within the Indian military. One of the biggest has been the realisation that China, not Pakistan, constitutes the main threat to India. An entire Indian strike corps, along with other formations, has been redirected to the LAC as a deterrent to China.