A fourth meeting between top Indian and Chinese commanders scheduled next week along the contested Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh is expected to focus on the critical Finger Area and the strategic Depsang plains, with a complex disengagement process that began after previous military talks on June 30 progressing smoothly in Galwan Valley, Hot Springs and Gogra, two officials familiar with the developments said on Thursday, speaking on the condition on anonymity.
While the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) pulled back 2km from Patrolling Point 14 (Galwan Valley) and PP-15 (Hot Springs) earlier this week, a similar retreat was completed at PP-17 (Gogra) on Thursday, said one of the officials cited above. The Indian Army, too, has pulled back proportionately in these friction areas.
The army has observed some thinning of PLA troops, vehicles and removal of structures from a key spur in the Finger Area near Pangong Tso over the last 48 hours, but it can’t be seen as disengagement, he said.
The Finger Area will be at the centre of the next round of military discussions between the corps commander-ranked officers, with Depsang also figuring prominently on the Indian agenda, said a second official.
“Disengagement at Galwan Valley, Hot Springs and Gogra looked doable from the beginning. The Finger Area is where negotiations could drag out as Chinese troops have dug in their heels in Finger 4. Getting the PLA to retreat in the Depsang sector is equally critical from the Indian perspective,” he said.
The Finger Area, which refers to a set of eight cliffs jutting out of the Sirijap range overlooking the Pangong lake, remains the biggest test and hardest part of the disengagement process, as reported by HT on Thursday.
Before the PLA grabbed positions on Finger 4 overlooking Indian deployments, the army would patrol right up to Finger 8 that New Delhi considers within Indian territory. The new positions held by the PLA have curtailed the scope of Indian patrols. Fingers 4 and 8 are 8km apart.The Indian claim line in this sector extends to Finger 8, while the Chinese claim is up to Finger 4 .
The army is keeping a strict vigil along the contested border in the Depsang sector where the PLA’s forward presence is a matter of serious concern and where a 2013 Chinese intrusion blocked the access of Indian soldiers to several patrolling routes, including the ones leading to PPs-10, 11, 11A, 12 and 13.
“With disengagement successfully completed in Galwan Valley, Hot Springs and Gogra, the military commanders will now get down to the more challenging discussions around the Finger Area and Depsang plains,” said former Northern Army commander Lieutenant General DS Hooda (retd).
The Indian focus should not be entirely on disengagement but on restoration of status quo ante (the situation as it existed in early April) in these two important areas, Hooda said.