India and China have reached an agreement to start disengagement of troops on the north and south banks of the Pangong Lake nearly nine months after the military standoff in eastern Ladakh made headlines for the first time.
In April 2020, Chinese troops occupied territory between Finger 4 and Finger 8 on the north bank of the Pangong Lake. Before April, the Chinese forces were based at their camp east of Finger 8 (near the Sirijap Complex).
Spurs jutting out from the Chang Chenmo range and running mostly perpendicular towards the northern bank of Pangong Tso are called ‘Fingers’ by the Indian Army. These Fingers are labelled 1 to 8 in the map below.
India claims that the Line of Actual Control (LAC) runs through Finger 8 and China says it is close to Finger 2. In the late 1990s, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had built a motorable road up to Finger 4 along the bank of the Pangong Lake.
Both India, which has a permanent presence west of Finger 4, and China, used to patrol the area between Fingers 4 and 8, but neither had a permanent presence in this eight kilometre stretch on the north bank of the Pangong Lake.
But after April 2020, with the Chinese troops camped between Fingers 4 and 8 in large numbers, Indian patrols, which earlier used to go as far as Finger 8, were not able to move beyond Finger 4. This, in effect, gave China the control of the entire region between Finger 4 and 8 and the adjoining heights.
Since then, Chinese forces have been sitting on the Finger 4 ridgeline and Indian forces have been positioned on higher ground near Finger 3.
As part of the disengagement announced by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh in Parliament earlier today, Indian forces will be based at their camp near Finger 3, also called the Dhan Singh Thapa post or the Indo-Tibetan Border Police post, not very far from where they are currently deployed.
The PLA will vacate the area between Finger 4 and 8, dismantle the structures it has built over the last nine months and keep its forces east of Finger 8.
Both India and China will not send patrols to the area between Fingers 4 and 8 till the time they reach an agreement on the issue.
Indian and Chinese forces will also start disengaging in the area south bank of the Pangong Lake (called Chushul sub-sector), the area where units of the Indian Army and Special Frontier Force had occupied tactically important heights of the Kailash Range on the intervening night of 29 and 30 August.
Presence on these heights gives the Indian Army a complete view of the region, including the Chinese base and camps near the Spanggur Lake.
It not only gives India control of the strategically-important Spanggur Gap, which China could use for an armoured thrust into the Chushul Bowl and further towards Leh, but also leaves Chinese camps and lines of communication around the Spanggur Gap vulnerable to Indian attack from the dominating heights.
The Chushul Valley, which lies just west of the Kailash Range, can be accessed through the Spanggur Gap, a nearly 3-km break in the mountain chain. The flat terrain around the lake and in the Chushul Bowl allows the deployment of armour — tanks and armoured personnel carriers — in the region.
Although the Defence Minister did not share the details of the disengagement taking place in the area south of Pangong Tso, reports say both sides will start the process by pulling back armoured elements from the area.
India had deployed tanks at some of the heights it had occupied in August 2020. At some places south of the Pangong Lake, Indian and Chinese tanks were ranged against each other only a few hundred metres apart.
India’s actions in the Chushul sub-sector in late August were forced by China’s reluctance to move back from the territory it has occupied on the north bank of the Pangong Lake and the Indian Army’s increased unwillingness to trust the PLA on the ground after the Galwan River Valley clashes in June.
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