(This was originally posted in The Indian Express by KRISHN KAUSHIK)
Four months after Indian and Chinese troops disengaged in Pangong Tso, and two months after Corps Commander-level talks failed to make headway on pullback of troops from other areas of eastern Ladakh, China has suggested negotiations at the level of Division Commanders — an offer that the Indian side is said to be considering.
Division Commander-level talks involve teams headed by officers of the rank of Major General. This is different from the Corps Commander-level talks that involve more senior officers — Lt Generals who head Corps or equivalent formations.
The Chinese suggestion comes at a time when there is a stalemate over the disengagement process. The Corps Commander-level talks on April 9 made no progress. Incidentally, June 15 will mark one year of the Galwan Valley incident in which 20 Indian Army personnel lost their lives in clashes with PLA troops. China belatedly admitted to the loss of four PLA personnel.
A senior officer from the defence establishment said China has conveyed to India that negotiations for disengagement at Hot Springs and Gogra Post — at both places, small contingents of Chinese troops are on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control — can be discussed by Division Commanders. India, the officer said, is considering the idea. He said China has conveyed this to India through different levels, including hotline talks on the ground.
The officer did not rule out future discussions between Corps Commanders, but said if negotiations between Division Commanders can find a solution, then senior commanders may not need to meet again. He pointed out that though there has been no progress since troops from the two sides stepped back from the Pangong Tso region, China has not refused to disengage from other friction points. Yet it has also not agreed on a plan to disengage from the other points. The officer did not mention if the talks at the level of Division Commanders will also include Depsang Plains where China is blocking Indian troops from accessing traditional patrolling limits at Patrolling Point 10, PP11, PP11A, PP12 and PP13.
Recently, Army Chief General M M Naravane mentioned that negotiations take time, and had cited the example of the 1986 Sumdorong Chu standoff near Tawang which took eight years to be resolved. Indian and Chinese Corps Commanders have held 11 rounds of discussions to resolve the military standoff in eastern Ladakh that began in May 2020.
In February, Indian and Chinese troops and armor disengaged from the north and south banks of Pangong Tso and the Kailash ranges. While the commanders met on February 20, immediately after the disengagement, there was no agreement on pulling back troops from the other friction points. They met again on April 9 but the talks also did not result in any agreement. In fact, unlike the previous few rounds, the two sides did not even come up with a joint statement after the meeting, hinting at lack of any understanding on the future course of action.
In its statement on April 10, the Indian Army said the two sides “agreed on the need to resolve the outstanding issues in an expeditious manner in accordance with the existing agreements and protocols” and it was highlighted “that completion of disengagement in other areas would pave the way for two sides to consider de-escalation of forces and ensure full restoration of peace and tranquility and enable progress in bilateral relations”.