China has begun withdrawing its soldiers from three hotspots along the contested Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh, with India reciprocating by pulling back its forces deployed in those pockets as both sides step up efforts to resolve a month-long tense border confrontation, two senior officers familiar with the development said on Tuesday.
“Limited military disengagement” has taken place at the Galwan valley, Patrolling Point 15 and the Hot Springs area where Chinese soldiers have pulled back two to three km along with their infantry combat vehicles, said one of the two officers, both of whom requested anonymity.
“It’s a step towards returning to status quo ante (as of early April). Indian soldiers have also withdrawn from the forward positions held by them in these areas,” said the second officer.
Hindustan Times first reported on Monday that activity at the three sites declined after a seven-hour long meeting between the military commanders of the two armies, Lt Gen Harinder Singh, commander of the Leh-based 14 Corps and Maj Gen Liu Lin, commander of the PLA in the South Xinjiang region, at Moldo on the Chinese side of the LAC.
Pangong Tso , where it all began has also started to see “de-escalation” but “it will take time to complete the process here,” said a third army officer who asked not to be named
More military talks are planned in the coming days to ease tensions along the LAC, including one between major general-ranked officers at Patrolling Point 14 near the Galwan area on Wednesday, said the second officer.
This will be the fourth round of talks between major generals to break the stalemate that began with a violent confrontation between rival patrols near Pangong Tso on the night of May 5-6.
“Colonels and brigadiers will also hold a series of meetings with their Chinese counterparts at locations along the LAC to resolve the border situation. Hotlines at the tactical level are also functional,” the officer said.
Experts said that the beginning of disengagement at the three hotspots along the border was a positive development.
“It’s a good sign if tensions are easing at the three locations where the alignment of the LAC wasn’t disputed. We can now focus on resolving the situation on the northern bank of Pangong Tso,” said former Northern Army commander Lieutenant General DS Hooda (retd).
Around 250 soldiers of the two armies clashed near Pangong Tso last month with the scuffle leaving scores of troops injured. While an immediate flare-up was avoided as both armies stuck to protocols to resolve the situation, tensions swiftly spread to other pockets along the LAC.
Specifically, the stand-off was in three locations, marked as the Indian army’s patrolling points 14, 15, and 17. At point 14, the Chinese objected to India building a 60-metre long bridge on a rivulet to give its troops easy access to Daulat Beg Oldi, the last Indian military post south of the Karakoram pass. The Chinese have retreated from point 14, a government official who asked not to be named said.
At point 15, Chinese soldiers have been camping in tents for the past month, staring down at Indian soldiers doing the same. ‘Both sides have started reducing their presence here,” the government official added.
At point 17, both sides had amassed troops and armour. The armoured vehicles have been moved back, the official said, and the troops will follow.
Even in Pangong Tso, the Chinese have moved back the 15 interceptor boats and the 124 vehicles they moved in, the official added.
China marshalled close to 5,000 soldiers and deployed tanks and artillery guns on its side of the disputed border in the Ladakh sector where India also sent military reinforcements.
India and China will continue military and diplomatic contacts to resolve the standoff, the external affairs ministry said in a statement on Sunday. The ministry said that “the two sides will continue military and diplomatic engagements to resolve the situation and to ensure peace and tranquility in the border areas.”
India has dismissed China’s contention that its soldiers were hindering the activities of Chinese troops along the LAC, and accused Chinese forces of hampering patrols on the Indian side. The Indian government has made it clear it won’t allow any change in the status quo along the LAC, and that it will tackle the prevailing situation with “strength and restraint.”
India has also told China that it will not halt construction within the Indian boundary, including the strategic Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi (DS-DBO) road that provides connectivity to the country’s northern-most outpost, Daulat Beg Oldi.
India is also working on another road from Sasoma to Saser La that could eventually provide an alternative route to DBO near the Karakoram pass, as reported by Hindustan Times on June 9.
India was initially surprised by the PLA’s movement, the government official said but reacted quickly to match deployment and started negotiations. External affairs minister S Jaishankar and diplomats in Delhi and Beijing were involved in the process as were army chief Manoj Mukund Naravane , NSA Ajit Doval, and the chiefs of security agencies.
HT was the first to report on May 10 about tensions flaring up between India and China in north Sikkim where 150 soldiers were involved in a tense standoff a day earlier. Four Indian and seven Chinese soldiers were injured at Naku La during the confrontation.
Jayadeva Ranade, president of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy, said the issue had not ended with Tuesday’s developments.
“This is a welcome first step towards defusing the situation. They have talked about the easiest places [related to the stand-off] but there are more places along the LAC,” he said.
“Even if the situation is defused and the Chinese troops pull back, the question remains – why did they come in such large numbers at so many places? Were they testing our response? Is the plan to pull back and come in again? They know what they are going to do, and the larger agenda is yet to happen,” Ranade added.