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An Indian Air Force (IAF) helicopter flies over Leh in Ladakh. (PTI)
An Indian Air Force (IAF) helicopter flies over Leh in Ladakh. (PTI)

China signals retreat, but some pain points remain

  • Both sides agree to continue talks, but appear far from reaching a consensus in key areas of dispute
  • The two sides have agreed to create a buffer zone, with both simultaneously pulling back about 1.5km from the Line of Actual Control

India and China pulled back a step from their eyeball-to-eyeball positions at three points along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh on Monday and agreed to continue talks to reduce tensions that have been simmering for two months.

Both sides, however, appeared far from reaching a compromise in key areas of dispute such as the Pangong Tso and the Depsang plains, with analysts predicting the need for prolonged negotiations to ease the standoff.

A person familiar with the matter on Monday said “disengagement" has started with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) “seen removing tents and structures" at PP 14 (Patrolling Point)—the scene of a major clash on 15 June that resulted in 20 deaths on the Indian side and an unspecified number of Chinese casualties.

The two sides have agreed to create a buffer zone, with both simultaneously pulling back about 1.5km from the Line of Actual Control.

Some “rearward movement of PLA vehicles was seen in Galwan, Hotsprings and Gogra post", the person cited above said, stressing that these needed to be verified.

India’s caution comes from the fact that many rounds of military and diplomatic talks in June to de-escalate tensions have failed to yield results.

Chinese troops were seen on satellite picture—not verified by the Indian government—making further inroads into Indian territory even as the two sides were talking about disengagement.

An Indian unit that went to verify disengagement was attacked by Chinese troops on 15 June.

Former Indian ambassador to China, Pakistan and Bhutan, Gautam Bambawale welcomed the movement toward reduction of tensions but pointed out that “the bottom line for India from which it will not budge is restoration of the status quo ante"—that is, China has to vacate all the areas it has intruded into.

“China, by its military action on the ground, has damaged the relationship. It has also sent a message of what type of relationship it desires with India. This will put pressure on the India-China relationship, which as a consequence, will get worse before it gets better," he said.

Monday’s development comes after a telephone conversation between Indian national security adviser Ajit Doval and Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi on Sunday.

Both are special representatives tasked with resolving the decades-old border dispute. That both sides issued separate statements indicates differences in viewpoints.

Doval and Wang “agreed that it was necessary to ensure at the earliest, complete disengagement of the troops along the LAC and de-escalation from India-China border areas for full restoration of peace and tranquillity," the Indian statement said.

“The two sides should also ensure a phased and stepwise de-escalation in the India-China border areas. They re-affirmed that both sides should strictly respect and observe the line of actual control and should not take any unilateral action to alter the status quo and work together to avoid any incident in the future that could disturb peace and tranquillity in border areas," the Indian statement added.

The Chinese statement, on the other hand, emphasized different points.

Pointing out that “bilateral relations have withstood tests and made hard-won progress", it said that the “right and wrong of what recently happened at the Galwan Valley in the western sector of the China-India boundary is very clear"—in a reference to Beijing previously putting the blame for the 15 June clash on India.

“China will continue firmly safeguarding our territorial sovereignty as well as peace and tranquillity in the border areas," it said—in a possible indication that the areas currently under Chinese control are non-negotiable.

Urging India to look at the big picture of relations, the Chinese statement said both countries “should pay great attention to the current complex situation facing China-India bilateral relations, and work together to overcome and turn it around as soon as possible".

“We hope India can work with China to guide public opinion in the right direction, keep and advance bilateral exchanges and cooperation, and avoid amplifying the differences and complicating matters," it added, in a possible reference to India taking steps such as banning Chinese mobile phones apps in retaliation to its position on the border.

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