NEW DELHI: India and China are yet to agree on the modalities for the proposed troop disengagement in eastern Ladakh, making it virtually certain their soldiers will remain deployed on the forbidding heights through the long and harsh winter ahead.
The seven-month-long military confrontation in eastern Ladakh “is frozen in time” now, with “no meaningful progress” being made after the eighth round of corps commander-level talks on November 6.
“Talks have virtually stalled over the exact modalities and sequencing of steps for a mutually-acceptable pullback. China is yet to get back on the date for the ninth round of military dialogue,” said a source on Thursday.
China is adamant about the proposed disengagement beginning from the south bank of Pangong Tso-Chushul area, where Indian troops are in tactically-advantageous positions on the ridge line stretching from Thakung to Gurung Hill, Spanggur Gap, Magar Hill, Mukhpari, Rezang La and Reqin La (Rechin mountain pass) since August 29-30.
India, in turn, wants the disengagement to kick off from the north bank of Pangong Tso, where the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has occupied the 8-km stretch from ‘Finger 4 to 8’ (mountainous spurs) since early-May.
This remains the primary bone of contention, with “some differences” on the distance of pullback in the ‘Finger’ area also yet to be resolved. Then there is also the question of the strategically-located Depsang Plains, where the PLA has been actively blocking Indian patrols for the last seven months.
During the eighth round, India and China had broadly agreed to pull-back troops, tanks, howitzers and armoured vehicles from the ‘friction points’ in the Pangong Tso-Chushul area, which had raised hopes of an early breakthrough.
But the disagreement on the modalities for it, along with a joint verification mechanism, has queered the pitch. Even as 50,000 troops each from the two sides remain dug in for the long haul, there is a growing assessment in the Indian security establishment that the current rival deployments will become the de facto position for the foreseeable future if there is no intervention at the highest politico-diplomatic level.
Senior officers contend there is “no need for India to rush headlong into any disengagement”. Utmost care should be taken to ensure Indian troops are not left in a tactically-disadvantageous position.
“It will certainly be a tough winter for our soldiers sitting at heights of over 15,000-feet, with temperatures already below minus 20 degree Celsius, coupled with the extreme wind chill factor and oxygen deprivation there,” said an officer.
But the PLA too is facing such adverse conditions, and for the first time, unlike Indian soldiers who are accustomed to being deployed at such heights. “The Indian Army has undertaken a massive logistical exercise to support soldiers with the requisite infrastructure and supplies this winter. If the LAC becomes like the LoC with Pakistan, with permanent deployments, so be it…Things will be easier from the next winter onwards,” he added.
Even if the two sides eventually agree to a disengagement plan, it will be slow going, with a phased pull-back becoming all the more difficult in peak winter. There is, after all, a huge trust deficit after the PLA reneged on an earlier disengagement plan in the Galwan Valley on June 15, which led to the extended skirmish in which 20 Indian and an unspecified number of Chinese soldiers were killed.