Is the India-China standoff over?

A breakthrough has been declared after the two sides agreed to disengage from the Pangong Tso region – but the lake is not the only flashpoint in this deadly, nine-month standoff

Shweta Sharma
in Delhi
Friday 12 February 2021 10:39
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Indian army releases video of disengagement process in Ladakh with China

India and China have agreed to disengage from military positions around the banks of a Himalayan lake, the first breakthrough between the two deadlocked Asian giants in nine months of standoff.

But while there are hopes that the news could be a springboard for further troop withdrawals, for now at least the situation is far from normal, with heavy deployments remaining on both sides of the de facto border high in the mountains.

The standoff between India and China is the worst in decades over their long disputed land border, and has boiled over into hand-to-hand violence on several occasions since it began last April. On 15 June, a clash between the two armies left 20 Indian soldiers dead and an undeclared number of Chinese casualties as they fought on treacherous slopes with clubs and other improvised weaponry.

The breakthrough announced by India’s defence minister Rajnath Singh on Thursday concerns positions to the north and south of Pangong Tso lake, between India’s eastern Ladakh and China’s West Tibet.

Mr Singh said the disengagement would take 48 hours and that a subsequent meeting would be held between senior commanders of both sides to discuss “outstanding issues”.

“I am happy to inform the House today that as a result of our well thought out approach and sustained talks with the Chinese side, we have now been able to reach an agreement on disengagement in the north and south bank of the Pangong Lake,” he said.

China’s defence ministry issued a similar statement, saying the “synchronised and organised” withdrawal had already begun.

Mr Singh reiterated prime minister Narendra Modi’s claim that India has not “conceded anything” and “will not give even an inch of Indian territory” as opposition parties continued to raise questions over the government’s failure to resolve the crisis, a standoff that has included the first firing of live ammunition across the Line of Actual Control (LAC), loosely demarcated border that separates India and China in the region.

One of the flashpoints for clashes, Pangong Tso is a lake shared between the two countries and divided into eight major finger-like spurs coming down to the lake from north to south.

Before the standoff began, India used to patrol up to Finger 8, where it claims the LAC is located, while China lays claim up to Finger 4. After May, China blocked Indian troops from patrolling beyond Finger 4 and amassed large numbers of troops in the region, dominating the area.

On Thursday, the two sides agreed that both China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Indian army would not patrol in the area between Finger 3 and Finger 8 until a final agreement is reached in military and diplomatic talks.

“These are mutual and reciprocal steps and any structures that had been built by both sides since April 2020 in both North and South Bank area will be removed and the landforms will be restored,” the Indian defence minister said.

The Indian army released a video on Thursday following the announcement. It showed the first visuals of Chinese tanks moving back from the Chusul Sector of the lake, as part of the disengagement process. It also showed army leaders of the two countries shaking hands.

The Pangong Tso region is just one point of friction areas between the two armies, however, a fact that was implicitly acknowledged by Mr Singh’s reference to “outstanding issues” yet to be resolved.

The Indian minister did not talk about the strategically-important Depsang plains, where China has amassed troops, including armour and artillery. PLA troops have blocked Indian troops from patrolling in the area, making it another point where opposition parties say the Modi administration appears to have ceded ground.

It is also not the first time India and China have attempted to disengage during the nine rounds of talks aimed at ended the standoff for good.

It was during a period when both sides were pulling back troops In June 2020 that deadly clashes broke out in the Galwan Valley, temporarily collapsing talks.

On 7 September, the first outbreak of gunfire was reported on the border in 40 years near Pangong Tso, as the two sides accused each other of crossing the border. Following the firing incidents, pictures of Chinese soldiers wielding spears, machetes and automatic rifles emerged online.

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