Lieutenant-General Harinder Singh, commander of the Leh-based XIV corps, and his Chinese counterpart, Western Theatre Command chief Lieutenant-General Xu Qiling, could meet as early as next week for a new round of talks on reducing the risk of armed conflict between troops facing off in contested zones along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh, highly-placed government sources have told News18.
The meeting is being scheduled against the backdrop of politically-charged claims that the disengagement agreement hammered out on June 30 concedes Chinese claims on the location of the LAC in the Galwan Valley where 20 Indian soldiers were killed in the worst fighting between the two countries since 1967.
Government sources, though, said the agreement is only about troops from both armies pulling back a kilometre from the sites they physically occupied — leaving their disagreements on course of the LAC for future diplomatic negotiations.
“Pulling troops back from the sites where they are facing off is intended to reduce the risk of violence between troops of the two armies, and has been done without prejudice to the claims of both countries on where the LAC lies,” explained an official. “The rights and wrongs of what happened in Galwan are not the subject of these talks, either. Their one, limited objective is to prevent any fresh violence from breaking out.”
New Delhi says last month’s fighting in Galwan broke out after the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) pitched tents near a location it calls Patrolling Point 14 — and then resiled on an agreement to pull back its troops to the Chinese side of the LAC. For its part, the PLA alleged that its troops moved into the area only because the Indian Army was seeking to build a road to Point 14, violating agreed protocols barring construction near the LAC.
The agreement between the Indian Army and PLA has now led soldiers from both armies to fall back a kilometre each from their positions near Point 14 and to refrain from patrolling the new buffer zone between them.
Indian and Chinese troops have also fallen back from their positions near Point 15, 17 and 17A — an arc that runs along the LAC in the Gogra and Hot Springs areas. Troops brought up by both armies to the rear, in anticipation of a possible conflict, are also being drawn down.
Government sources say electronic means and aerial reconnaissance are being used by both sides to ensure the other side adheres to the no-patrolling deal.
Key to the next round of talks will be agreement on fall-back locations on a series of eight ridgelines radiating from the Pangong Tso lake, known as the ‘Fingers’. The Indian Army has long asserted the right to patrol the territory from Finger 1 to Finger 8 — and the PLA, conversely, up to Finger 2. This summer, though, the PLA created a network of earthworks and posts to halt Indian patrols from moving ahead of Finger 3.
“PLA positions on Finger 4 have thinned out, and the Indian Army has made some reciprocal gestures,” said the official. “Lieutenant-General Singh and Lieutenant-General Xu will now have to firm up what their troops’ final positions will be. This obviously won’t be easy, but it’s not impossible either.”
Later rounds of talks could touch on areas where Indian patrols have been obstructed by the PLA from patrolling the LAC, but without resulting in physical face-offs. Indian troops in the Depsang plains, for example, have been obstructed by the PLA from reaching the arc from Point 10 to Point 13.
Following the stabilisation of forces on both sides, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi are expected to begin a wider discussion on the two countries’ disagreements on the LAC —disagreements which have sharpened with the creation of new logistical infrastructure by both militaries.
The disagreements have been made intractable by wide disagreements on where the LAC actually runs, with gaps of dozens of kilometres in some cases separating the claims of the two countries.
New Delhi has long argued for an agreement on delineating the LAC and pointed to a series of crisis which have taken place since 2013 to argue that military-to-military protocols implemented since 1993 are proving inadequate to prevent the risk of violence.
In 2003, Beijing had declined to discuss the issue, on the grounds that the differences between its perception of the LAC and that asserted by New Delhi were too great to allow meaningful resolution.