The Indian Army occupied a series of strategic heights to prevent the PLA from grabbing Indian territory on the southern bank of Pangong Tso in a stealthy midnight move on August 29, 2020

The Indian Army’s lightning takeover of strategic heights on the southern side of Pangong Tso a year ago stunned the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), gave it (the Indian Army) heft in subsequent military negotiations, and eventually paved the way for the first and crucial round of disengagement of rival soldiers and weaponry from the Pangong Tso sector in eastern Ladakh, officials and experts tracking the developments said on Thursday.

The bold moves on the Kailash range and other heights on the southern bank at midnight on August 29 were “a game changer and tilted the balance in favour of the Indian Army” for the first time almost four months after the border row erupted in early May 2020, a senior army officer -- one of the people cited above -- said on condition of anonymity.

The PLA wasn’t expecting the Indian Army to take control of the southern heights when the entire focus was on developments on the northern bank where the Chinese had intruded into Indian territory and grabbed positions on Finger 4 overlooking Indian deployments, said a second official, who asked not to be named.

“The five rounds of talks held before the August 29 action last year were focused on the Finger Area and other friction points where the PLA had unilaterally changed status quo. And then suddenly, the heights on the southern side of Pangong Tso were also on the negotiating table. It boosted our bargaining power,” this person added.

The Indian Army occupied a series of strategic heights to prevent the PLA from grabbing Indian territory on the southern bank of Pangong Tso in a stealthy midnight move on August 29, 2020. In swift follow-up action that threw the PLA off balance, the Indian Army rushed its front-line tanks and infantry combat vehicles (ICVs) to the new heights held by its soldiers.

The aggressive move sent a clear message to China that India had the military capability and resolve to change the status quo on the contested Line of Actual Control (LAC) in its favour, said former director general of military operations Lieutenant General Vinod Bhatia (Retd).

“In the ensuing military talks, the Indian Army was negotiating the restoration of status quo ante (of April 2020) on the LAC from a position of relative strength.”

The Indian Army ‘s control of ridgeline positions on the southern bank allowed it to completely dominate the sector and keep an eye on Chinese military activity, with the previously-held Indian positions scattered across Rezang La, Reqin pass, Gurung Hill and Magar heights.

The Indian Army put further pressure on the PLA in early September 2020 with its soldiers taking control of key heights overlooking the PLA’s deployments on the Finger 4 ridgeline on the northern bank. Rival soldiers were then holding ground barely a few hundred metres from each other on the Finger 4 heights.

Disengagement of rival troops and weaponry from the Pangong Tso sector took place more than five months later after the ninth round of military talks. “The developments on the southern bank last August hastened the disengagement process. Things were stuck before that,” said a third official.

India and China wrapped up the disengagement process in Pangong Tso area in mid-February, with their armies pulling back forward-deployed troops, tanks, ICVs and artillery guns from strategic heights where rival soldiers last year fired shots for the first time at the LAC after 45 years. (The last recorded incident when bullets were fired at the LAC was in October 1975, when the PLA ambushed an Indian patrol in Arunachal Pradesh’s Tulung La sector and shot four soldiers dead.)

The situation on both banks of Pangong Tso was extremely tense before the disengagement took place, with Northern Army commander Lieutenant General YK Joshi admitting in February 2021 that India and China were on the brink of war after the actions on the southern bank.

Apart from the demolition of military structures erected by both sides after April 2020, the disengagement also saw both armies pull back troops deployed eyeball-to-eyeball on the Finger 4 ridgeline at heights of almost 18,000 feet.

The second round of disengagement took place in early August when the two armies pulled back their forward deployed troops from Gogra or Patrol Point-17A, which was one of the friction points on the LAC, with the breakthrough coming after the 12th round of military talks.

The disengagement was carried out on August 4-5, almost six months after the two armies pulled back their troops and weaponry from the Pangong Tso sector.