(This was originally posted in TOI by Rajat Pandit)
NEW DELHI: India is keeping an eagle-eye on the mutual disengagement underway between Indian and Chinese soldiers in Pangong Tso area of eastern Ladakh, tallying it with the phased pullback specified in the written agreement inked between the two countries last week “The disengagement on both sides of Pangong Tso is progressing well so far… it is slightly ahead of schedule in some positions. The effort is to complete this Phase-I of disengagement by February 20,” a senior official said on Sunday.
India insisted on a written pact for the Pangong Tso disengagement, which was approved by the country’s highpowered China Study Group just before the actual pullback kicked off on February 10, due to the continuing trust deficit with China.
“The formal agreement details the exact steps each side will take for complete Phase-I disengagement. Each step is being verified both physically on the ground as well as through electronic surveillance through drones, including quadcopters, and satellites,” the official said. Within 48 hours of completing the Pangong Tso disengagement, India and China will hold the tenth round of corps commander-level talks to focus on the strategically-located Depsang Plains as well as the continuing ‘friction points’ like Gogra and Hot Springs. “Patrolling Points 15 and 17 at Hot Springs and Gogra are unlikely to pose a major problem. They are relatively fewer soldiers in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation there. But Depsang, where the two sides have amassed infantry brigades and tank regiments, will be quite tricky,” another officer said.
TOI had last week reported that some in the defense establishment feel India should have used the bargaining leverage provided by the occupation of the Kailash range heights for negotiations on the Depsang imbroglio, instead of squandering it just for the Pangong disengagement pact. But the government says Depsang is an old, lingering problem that has to be tackled separately. Under the current disengagement pact, both armies have already withdrawn their tanks, howitzers, and other heavy weapons from the south bank of Pangong Tso-Kailash range in the Chushul sector. Now, a thinning of the rival troops is taking place in different stages.
Indian troops had proactively taken six to seven tactical heights on the ridgeline there, stretching from Thakung to Gurung Hill, Spanggur Gap, Magar Hill, Mukhpari, Rezang La, and Reqin La (Rechin mountain pass), in end-August.
In the scramble for the heights along the Line of Actual Control, which also saw at least four incidents of warning shots being exchanged, Chinese troops had also taken a couple of features like Helmet Top and Yellow Bump. These heights on the LAC had been left unoccupied since the 1962 war due to a mutual understanding, as was earlier reported by TOI.
On the north bank of the Pangong Lake, which is frozen now, Indian soldiers are now pulling back westwards in phases to their Dhan Singh Thapa post between Finger 2 and Finger 3 (mountainous spurs). PLA troops, in turn, are withdrawing to their old positions east of Finger 8 at Sirijap.