Indian media, based on sources as well as a statement from the People’s Liberation Army, reported on February 10 that a plan for military disengagement in the north and south banks of Pangong Lake in eastern Ladakh is under way. The lake has hosted principal friction points in the nine-month long standoff between China and India, the worst such in over half a century.
The Hindu quoted People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Senior Colonel Wu Qian as saying in a statement: “The Chinese and Indian front-line troops at the southern and northern banks of the Pangong Tso Lake start synchronized and organized disengagement from February 10. This move is in accordance with the consensus reached by both sides at the 9th round of China-India Corps Commander Level Meeting.” The ninth round of corps commanders’ talks were held on January 24.
The Indian Army has not issued a statement confirming the development at the time of writing.
According to sources in the Indian security establishment who spoke with India Today, the plan to disengage along the lake followed from meetings between local commanders of both sides over the last few days. The outlet quoted one of them as saying: “As per the plan, China will move back to Finger 8 and Indian troops will pull back to the Dhan Singh Thapa post between Finger 2 and 3. No patrolling will take place by both sides till Finger 4. This will be done in a phased manner.”
The “fingers” refer to protruding mountainous spurs along the north bank of Pangong Lake. India has maintained that the undefined Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China starts along Finger 8, while China claims that it starts at Finger 2. The effectively phantom nature of the LAC implies that where it lies is essentially a matter of mutual perception, and tacit agreement based on patrolling patterns. China’s construction of a blacktopped road reaching Finger 4 from Finger 8 – which would have effectively shifted the LAC to India’s detriment – served as a one of the key triggers of the ongoing standoff.
On June 15 last year, Chinese and Indian troops clashed in the Galwan Valley north of Pangong Lake, leading to fatalities for the first time since 1975.
In late August last year, India launched a significant operation to capture unoccupied peaks in the Kailash range along the south bank of Pangong Lake, near Spangur Lake. While these peaks — which were acquired by the secretive, ethnic Tibetan-manned Special Frontier Force — were not across what China considers the LAC, the operation was designed to provide India with a negotiating chip to force an acceptable solution along the north bank of the lake as well as defensively consolidate India’s position in the south.
According to a Hindustan Times report based on its sources in the Indian security establishment, both India and China have started removing tanks and infantry combat vehicles from the south bank of the lake. That said, Indian forces continue to occupy the heights it acquired in August, they told the newspaper.
Even if a military disengagement in both banks of the lake eventuates – and the “if” is crucial here, given similar announcements in the past that did not materialize on the ground – the PLA has built up considerable forces in the strategically-vital Depsang Plains, northwest of Pangong Lake. Other friction points between both armies include the Galwan Valley, Gogra and the Hot Springs. (This Print article has a helpful set of maps that gives the reader a sense of where each of them are relative to the others.) All of them will have to be redressed even if the disengagement along Pangong Lake goes as announced.