The initial optimism appears to have waned after the latest 11th round of military talks on April 9 during which the PLA demonstrated a lack of commitment to restore the status quo of April 2020, said an official

After a promising start at the strategic heights on both banks of Pangong Tso, the disengagement process between the Indian Army and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has hit a wall in eastern Ladakh as a result of the PLA’s reluctance to pull back its forward deployed troops from Hot Springs, Gogra and Depsang, people tracking the border standoff said on Monday.

The swift pace of disengagement in the Pangong Tso area in February — it began and ended in less than 10 days — raised hopes of positive outcomes at the remaining flashpoints on the contested Line of Actual Control (LAC).

But the initial optimism appears to have waned after the latest 11th round of military talks on April 9 during which the PLA demonstrated a lack of commitment to restore the status quo of April 2020, said one of the officials cited above, speaking on the condition of anonymity. Disengagement of frontline troops on the LAC is the first crucial step to restore peace and tranquillity in eastern Ladakh. Until that happens, there is no question of de-escalation of the border conflict and the eventual de-induction of rival soldiers in the sensitive theatre.

“We are still stuck at the first step. While no one was expecting an overnight resolution of the complicated border row, the developments at Pangong Tso did bring hope. But it is now clear that talks aimed at finding a solution will have to carry on at the diplomatic and military level,” said a second official.

Days after the mutual withdrawal of front-line troops and weapons from the Pangong Tso heights in February, army chief General Manoj Mukund Naravane cautioned that the disengagement process with China would be a long-drawn one. He described disengagement as a “win-win situation” for both sides, but added that de-escalation of conflict and de-induction of rival forces was “still a long way to go.”

What’s Resolved; What’s Not

India and China wrapped up the disengagement process in Pangong Tso area in February, with their armies pulling back forward-deployed troops, tanks, infantry combat vehicles 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 contested 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. Military structures erected in the Pangong Tso area after April 2020 were also demolished. The disengagement saw both armies pull back troops deployed eyeball-to-eyeball on the Finger 4 ridgeline at heights of almost 18,000 feet on the northern bank as well as withdrawing soldiers holding positions on the Kailash range on the southern bank.

On the northern bank, the PLA retreated to its base east of Finger 8, while the Indian Army moved back to its permanent position near Finger 3. Under the disengagement agreement, both sides agreed not to patrol the contested areas between Fingers 4 and 8 until an agreement was reached through future talks. The Indian claim line in this sector extends to Finger 8, while the Chinese claim is up to Finger 4.

Following the disengagement at Pangong Tso, the 10th round of talks between corps commander-ranked officers of the two armies was held on February 20 with focus on resolving problems at Hot Springs, Gogra and Depsang. India’s aim is to restore the status on LAC to what it was in April 2020. The February 20 talks appeared to have gone well, with the Indian and Chinese armies agreeing to resolve outstanding issues at friction points on the LAC in a “steady and orderly” manner and unanimously stating that the Pangong Tso disengagement provided “a good basis” for resolving pending problems.

“The same spirit appeared to be missing at the 11th round of talks as far as the Chinese side is concerned. The PLA gave no indications that it was willing to restore status quo ante of April 2020 at the remaining friction areas,” said a third official. India told China during the talks that disengagement at all friction points was a must to set the stage for de-escalation of the conflict and put bilateral ties on track.

The Indian Army’s patrolling activity has been affected in Hot Springs and Gogra, where rival troops are forward deployed and where skeletal disengagement took place last year, but the gains could not be consolidated.

The PLA’s deployments in Depsang have also hindered access of Indian soldiers to routes including the ones leading to Patrolling Points (PP) 10, 11, 11-A, 12 and 13. To be sure, the problems at Depsang predate the current border standoff. The Depsang plains lie south of Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO) in a strategic area that the military calls Sub-Sector North (SSN). DBO is the country’s northernmost outpost where India operates an advanced landing ground to support forward military deployments. An earlier intrusion in Depsang saw the PLA set up positions 19km into the Indian side of the LAC and triggered a face-off that took three weeks to resolve.

Did India Give Up Kailash Leverage?

India’s bold moves on the Kailash range on the southern bank of Pangong Tso last August boosted the army’s bargaining power during military talks and eventually led to an agreement on disengagement in the Pangong Tso area. The Indian Army occupied a series of key heights to prevent the PLA from grabbing Indian territory on the southern bank in a stealthy midnight move on August 29, 2020. The Indian Army followed this up by rushing its front-line tanks and ICVs to strategic heights held by its soldiers.

While there has been talk in some quarters that India may have squandered its Kailash leverage to bring the Chinese under pressure, several experts and officials Hindustan Times spoke to were of the view that easing tensions in the Pangong Tso area was critical to prevent the border row from deteriorating. In February, Northern Army commander Lieutenant General YK Joshi said India and China were on the brink of war after the actions on the southern bank.

“It was a pragmatic decision to de-escalate tensions in a dangerous area while continuing talks at other friction points with the clear message that India will hold its ground. We could have stayed put on the Kailash range but that would not have meant that other friction points would have got resolved. There was a grave danger of the situation getting out of hand as rival soldiers and tanks were too close to each other on the southern bank,” said former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal.

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 PLA also held some features on the southern bank.

The taking of heights on the southern bank served its purpose, said Lieutenant General Vinod Bhatia (Retd), a former director general of military operations. “We achieved our objective with our actions on the Kailash range and got the PLA to retreat to its base east of Finger 8 on the northern bank. China realised that India was capable of holding up its end in a quid pro quo. They understood that we will negotiate on equal terms,” Bhatia said.

Former Northern Army commander Lieutenant General DS Hooda (Retd) said while it may appear in hindsight that it would have been better if India could have secured a package deal for disengagement at all friction points on the LAC rather than restricting the process only to the northern and southern banks, the focus should now be on building pressure on the Chinese to take the disengagement process forward.

Preparing For Prolonged Talks

Senior military officials and experts said talks were unlikely to yield encouraging outcomes in the short-term and India should be prepared for a long haul.

“It’s obvious that a quick resolution to the outstanding problems in Hot Springs, Gogra and Depsang is not in sight. It is crucial for India to build pressure on China — political, diplomatic and economic — to end the dragging dispute in an advantageous way for India,” said General Hooda.

India built pressure on China in several areas last year too. In a show of strength, New Delhi carried out a raft of missile tests when the border row with China was at its peak. India also spent an extra ₹20,776 crore on the emergency purchase of weapons and systems to beef up its military capabilities to deal security challenges posed by China.

Steps were taken on the economic front to put pressure on China after the June 15 Galwan Valley clash that left 20 Indian and an unspecified number of PLA soldiers dead. India’s first direct economic reaction was the announcement of a ban on scores of Chinese mobile applications, including TikTok, UC Browser and WeChat, on June 29, 2020. The following month, India barred the award of any project to contractors from countries sharing land borders with India without prior registration with a competent authority and security clearances from the ministry of external affairs and ministry of home affairs. India has also imposed anti-dumping duties on several Chinese products.

“We should not ease off that pressure. The negotiations are going to be long drawn. As far as Hot Springs and Gogra are concerned, it’s not about someone coming in 1km here or there. It is more about how you want to appear as a nation, both domestically and to the world. After China withdraws from these areas, people will ask PLA what it achieved,” Hooda said.

Military and diplomatic talks are the current dialogue mechanisms in operation to resolve the border row. The military dialogue is followed by a meeting of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination (WMCC) on border affairs. The military commanders set the timeframe and method of disengagement while the WMCC monitors the process.

While both sides have withdrawn front-line troops and military equipment from the Pangong Tso area, there has been no change in the overall deployment in the sector as de-escalation and de-induction will only take place after complete disengagement at all friction points, officials said.

“De-escalation of the conflict in the short term is unlikely. But I don’t foresee an escalation either. It’s not in the interest of either side to escalate,” General Bhatia said.