Army chief Gen Naravane visiting forward areas along the LAC in Ladakh on December 23, 2020

On January 9, a Chinese soldier had been captured by Indian troops the previous night near Gurung Hill in Ladakh's Chushul sector, one of the tensest friction points along the LAC

by Shiv Aroor

A breakthrough in the eight-month-long standoff between the armies of India and China in eastern Ladakh is still a way off, but a recent act of military professionalism and heart appears to have softened at least communication between the two sides at talks and in hotline conversations.

On January 9, India Today was the first to report that a Chinese soldier had been captured by Indian troops the previous night near Gurung Hill in Ladakh's Chushul sector, one of the tensest friction points.

The soldier, in his early twenties, identified now as Lance Corporal Zhong Yu Jie of the 56 Army Fighting Support Battalion, was betrayed in pitch darkness by his flashlight while repairing communication lines and was captured by an Indian troop patrol. Given that this had taken place in an area where Indian and Chinese positions were less than a hundred meters from each other, the capture was poised to escalate the situation in the hours that followed.

But contrary to local expectations that the soldier would be used as leverage since he was captured in an area where rounds had been fired just months ago, and things have been on a hair-trigger, the Indian Army remained in communication with the PLA post, completed formalities quickly and handed over the young PLA soldier on January 11. It is said that the handing over caught the Chinese by surprise -- they had expected things to drag on for a few days.

Since January 11, India Today has learnt that nearly all communications from the Chinese side, across levels, have included words of gratitude and admiration for the professionalism displayed in one of the most fraught sectors of the standoff zone.

A senior source said, "We of course don't take such things into our military calculations on ground, but the Chinese appear to be genuinely moved by the gesture. The Indian Army's ethos in a difficult situation has surprised them, and they are grateful."

The quick handing over of the PLA soldier is being seen in an especially positive light since word has trickled out that it was the Indian Army leadership that insisted on clean, clear repatriation of the soldier. At least one intelligence agency had wanted to play wait and watch, possibly in order to assess the possibility of leverage.

Between 14 Corps Commander Lt Gen PGK Menon and the Army leadership in Delhi, it was decided that there would be none of that, and the soldier was quickly handed over at the Moldo crossing point on January 11. The Army's alacrity apparently wasn't lost on the Chinese and has been interpreted as an act of unusual professional goodwill.

One may remember that similar goodwill had been demonstrated in October last year when a PLA soldier had strayed across accidentally in the Demchok sector. In that case, the handing over was similarly swift, though it was less of an issue since Demchok isn't a friction area and the case was found to be genuine.

The January capture was different in every way given how quickly things are poised to escalate in the south Pangong sectors owing to troop proximity, open tempers just weeks ago, and the fact that the Chinese are already on the defensive in this particular area.

Stray conversations on Chinese social media being tracked by Indian analysts have also found glowing words being said about the soldier's handover. Under Corps Commander Lt Gen Menon's charge, there have been four rounds of talks including today's, which, owing to bad weather and howling winds in the area, began only in the afternoon, and not in the morning as scheduled.

India Today can confirm that the Chinese side has once again placed on record its appreciation of the Indian Army's professionalism during recent conversations.

As India Today reported earlier today, softening of the conversation changes nothing on the ground immediately. In fact, the Chinese Army has in reality consolidated its positions and troop numbers since September despite categorically agreeing mutually not to. And while mind games and blow-hot-blow-cold are old tested tactics in a standoff, and while the Indian Army is taking nothing for granted on the ground, it is also true that the Chinese Army have been surprised twice in the last four months.

First, in September when the Indian Army conducted lightning pre-emptive actions to hold off the Chinese in the Pangong sectors, and earlier this month, with an unexpected act of morality and ethics that has gone down very well up and down the chain of the Chinese Army.

Whether this softening and admiration translate into anything meaningful on the ground is nobody's guess at this time. But for a standoff that has bristled even in conversations for eight months, softer tones will hopefully carry meaning.