The issue has been discussed threadbare during military talks that ended earlier this week, with indications that additional rounds of talks at the appropriate level may be needed for further progress on the issue.
Depsang plains – where Chinese troops have occupied a feature called bottleneck that restricts access by Indian troops to four patrolling points (PPs) – is the main issue of contention being addressed during the current round of talks. The other is the pitching of tents by Chinese forces disguised as locals at Charding Nalla in Demchock, which sources say can have a relatively easy resolution.
At Depsang, where intrusions and faceoffs between troops have continued for several years, including a major incident in 2013, differences that need to be resolved are the depth of patrolling to be allowed to both sides. Military leaders have to come to an agreement on the limits of patrolling once troops are withdrawn from forward positions.
Progress over both Depsang and Demchock were made at the 19th round of Corps Commander Level talks held earlier this month, which were followed by six days of talks at the Major General level. Successive rounds of high level military talks show that negotiations have been tough, with neither side willing to cede space and exercising extreme caution as distrust is prevalent since bloody clashes on the border in 2020. A look at how talks have progressed over the last three years.
First Round & DisasterThe very first round of Corps Commander-level talks took place on June 6, 2020 amidst heavy tensions at several border flashpoints in Eastern Ladakh. The talks took place after a tense five-week standoff between Indian and Chinese troops at several locations including the Galwan valley, Pangong Tso and Gogra.The talks were preceded by violent clashes between Indian and Chinese troops that included stone pelting and medieval era clashes with sticks and shields. While no lives were lost in those clashes, the seriousness was noted by both sides and talks were initiated that aimed at dis-engagement of troops at all points – basically increasing the distance between opposing camps to prevent a sudden flare up.
Both sides agreed to pulling back troops after talks at the Major General level and it was during this process of disengagement that the bloody clash at Galwan took place. Indian and Chinese troops on June 15 engaged in a skirmish over removal of tents and other structures near Patrolling Points 14 in Galwan, leading to the deaths of commanding officers of both sides, besides several more troops. This spiked military tensions with China to a 45-year high.
The incident not only led to a massive trust deficit between the two militaries but also reflected that even a negotiated agreement of dis-engagement between the two sides is not easy to implement on the ground and can have unforeseen complications.
Indian offensive and Pangong Disengagement
While dis-engagement at Galwan took place within days of the clash, the next rounds of talks focused on other flashpoints, with the biggest being Chinese deployment of troops in the Finger area along Pangong Tso.
China had dug in thousands of troops, hundreds of artillery guns and deployed armour to secure a vast tract of land extending from Finger 8 to 4 along the lake. In successive corps commander level talks, the Chinese side refused to budge from their position that the deployments were necessary and will not be rolled back.
This position was shaken when India carried out Op Snow Leopard and occupied strategic heights in Chushul on the southern bank in late August 2020 to build pressure on the PLA that was not budging from the north bank.
A resolution was finally brokered during the 9th round of Corps Commander level meeting on Jan 24, 2021 when China agreed to roll back its troops and dismantle all infrastructure in the Finger area, that was matched by an Indian withdrawal from strategic heights of Chushul. A show of strength, and months of high level military talks led to what has till now been the most significant rollback by the PLA on the Ladakh border.
Gogra and Hot Springs
Following the success at Pangong, a formula was accepted to disengagement troops at the Gogra area also. On August 6 2021, all infrastructure and temporary structures were dismantled by both sides and troops moved back to their permanent bases. Plans to disengage at Patrolling Point 17A were finalised during Corps Commander talks on 31 July 2021 and were carried out smoothly on the ground.
While this success gave hope that remaining issues would be resolved at a faster pace, tensions and uncertainties prevailed for almost a year before the next round of disengagement on September 8, 2022. This was at Patrol Point 15, near Hot Springs, which had been a major area of confrontation since May 2020, with over a thousand Chinese soldiers and heavy weapons deployed across the LAC, with India moving in an opposing force.
The current marathon talks are taking place after the 19th round of Corps Commander talks in which the two remaining flashpoints at Depsang and Demchock are being addressed. Depang remains the biggest outstanding issue between the two sides and indications that an expeditious resolution is in the works has come from positive statements by both India and China. However, given the past where progress has been slow, with even an agreement during talks not guaranteeing a peaceful withdrawal, extreme caution is being exercised.
De-induction at Status Quo
The larger question of restoring status quo ante as of May 2020 is still to be addressed. Since moving over 50,000 troops to the Ladakh border in the guise of an exercise, just as the Covid crisis was hitting the world, China has embarked on a major infrastructure building exercise. India has been matching this with improved roads and connectivity on its side as well. The Indian position has been clear that China has violated all past treaties and agreements on the border and should remove troops inducted in 2020 from all areas along Eastern Ladakh.