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NEW DELHI : In what is seen as a major breakthrough in the nine-month-old India-China faceoff in Ladakh, New Delhi and Beijing have agreed to disengage from the Pangong Tso lake area and return to positions held in April last year.

Analysts say the development is significant given that Pangong Tso was a major friction point and the most contentious in the current standoff that began in May 2020. “This is a positive first step," said lieutenant general (retired) Deepender Singh Hooda, former general officer commanding in chief of the Indian Army’s Northern Command, welcoming the breakthrough.

The first whiff of a possible end to the face-off came with the Chinese defence ministry on Wednesday announcing that the two countries had begun disengaging troops. Srikanth Kondapalli, a professor of Chinese Studies at the New Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University pointed out that the announcement was made by the Chinese defence ministry –which comes under the Central Military Commission headed by president Xi Jinping – showing that the process had been green-lighted by the top levels in Beijing.

Giving details of the agreement with China, defence minister Rajnath Singh told the Rajya Sabha on Thursday that the pullback from the northern bank of the Pangong Tso lake where China has an edge, and the southern bank where the advantage lies with India, will be a simultaneous process. Any structures built by both sides since April 2020 in both northern and southern banks will be removed, the minister said.

“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," Singh said.

“I want to assure this House that in reaching this settlement, we have not lost anything," he said.

The pullback will happen in a “phased, coordinated and verified manner," the minister said, indicating that the trust deficit between the two countries was high.

China will pull back from Finger 4 area in the northern banks of Pangong Tso to beyond Finger 8. India will move its troops back to just short of Finger 3 to the Dhan Singh Thapa post—a position that Indian troops held in April 2020 when the Chinese mobilization was first noticed by India. Fingers refer to mountain folds jutting into the lake.

The areas between Finger 3 and Finger 8 will not be patrolled by troops of either side till diplomats work out new protocols for patrols, Singh said. This is seen as a move to ensure there is no repeat of the Galwan clash in June last year when Indian and Chinese troops clashed over disengagement moves that resulted in the deaths of 20 Indian and an undisclosed number of Chinese soldiers.

Hooda said India securing commanding positions on the south bank of the Pangong Tso had given New Delhi a strong hand to negotiate with the Chinese. He was referring to the Indian Army in late August last year securing five mountain tops along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) border that gave India a major tactical advantage.

“When you are bargaining, there has to be give and take. You cannot say ‘you go back and we will not,’" he said.

“The fact that the Chinese have to move back from what it said was its traditional boundary line to the east of Finger 8," something India insisted on, “is not a small step" for the Chinese, said Hooda, who was the Indian Army’s Northern Commander between 2014 and 2016.

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