New Delhi: The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China is seeking the withdrawal of Indian troops from a key position in the Hot Springs area in eastern Ladakh, fearing they could choke its access to the Galwan valley, senior government sources have told ThePrint.
A 13-hour meeting of Indian and Chinese military commanders held last week ended without an agreement, and further talks are expected to be held.
PLA commanders, one source familiar with the negotiations said, have been asking that Indian troops withdraw from Patrol Point 15, located on the Line of Actual Control (LAC), just two kilometres from the road feeding Chinese positions inside the Galwan valley.
“The two sides agree, in principle, that both armies should pull back their troops and create a mutual no-patrol zone, as they have done elsewhere,” the official said. “The disagreement is on how far back they ought to go.”
The Ministry of Defence had announced, in August 2021, that the two armies had completed disengagement around Point 17A in Gogra which, like Point 15, is close to the LAC.
“The troops of both sides are now in their respective permanent bases,” the statement read. “All temporary structures and other allied infrastructure created in the area by both sides have been dismantled and mutually verified.”
In essence, New Delhi agreed not to patrol north-east of its base at Gogra, or Point 17A, while the PLA in turn committed not to send troops to a position it describes on maps as the Wenqian outpost, which lies on the Indian-claimed side of the LAC.
The agreement created a kind of demilitarised zone, where both armies said they would not send troops. The agreement built on a similar deal in February 2021, when the two countries created a no-patrol zone north and south of the Pangong Tso lake.
Chinese fears, India’s assertion
Finding a similar meeting ground around Patrol Point 15, though, has proved elusive. The position is just two kilometres from the road built some years ago by the PLA, linking Wenqian base — which mirrors Gogra — with the Galwan valley.
The road helped China rapidly funnel troops into Galwan in the summer of 2020, in the build-up to the clashes that claimed the lives of 20 Indian soldiers, and continues to ensure they can be easily resupplied.
In essence, the PLA fears that, in any future crisis, the Indian Army might use Point 15 as a staging post to cut off its troops in Galwan.
For its part, government sources said, New Delhi has pointed out that China had never in the past disputed that Patrol Point 15 lay on the Indian side of the LAC. The sector was long the responsibility of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, whose troops routinely patrolled up the Khugrang river from Point 17, or Gogra, on to Point 15, 16 and 17A.
One senior military officer said that, in 2015, an Indian Army patrol discovered a PLA bulldozer pushing through the road to Galwan, and responded by confiscating it. The PLA claimed a route error had led the bulldozer to its location, and agreed to end work.
“There were extended conversations about the roadworks then,” the officer said, “but never once was the case made that Point 15 was not on our side of the LAC”.
Fears have mounted in New Delhi that China is using the disengagement talks to push the LAC eastwards, to approximate border claims made by then-Chinese premier Zhou Enlai in 1959, which were rejected by India.
In 1960, during discussions by government experts on the border issue, China claimed the border “followed the watershed between the Kugrang Tsangpo river and its tributary, the Changlung” — in other words, to the south of Point 17A.
The agreement not to patrol up to Point 17A thus meant India has given up the right to assert its territorial claim by patrolling — but with no reciprocal renunciation of China’s claim that the LAC lies where it asserted in 1959.
As strategic affairs expert Manoj Joshi has pointed out, the agreement to create a no-patrol zone in Pangong Tso also involved “asymmetric concessions”.
China’s claims to Finger 4 — one of a series of eight ridges along the north bank of Pangong Tso — run well to the west of its so-called Claim Line of 1960. In the 1960 discussions, coordinates provided by China placed the LAC along Finger 7 and 8.
In other words, the demilitarised zone created in February between Finger 3 and 8 lies in territory which China has acknowledged, in formal negotiations, to lie on the Indian side of the LAC.
(Edited by Saikat Niyogi)