After suffering border casualties in Galwan, the retreat and dismantling of military infrastructure in Pangong Tso marks another first in recent history for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) that has refused to vacate occupied territory like the artificial South China Sea islands that came up even in the face of a US Navy-led security architecture.
While a cautious approach is being taken in power corridors as the disengagement is ongoing, there is appreciation of the fact that a tough Indian border stance has forced China to reconsider occupation of disputed territory and move back, despite creating formidable defences and military infrastructure along Pangong Tso.
Sources aware of the negotiations that led to the disengagement pointed out that the Galwan clash on June 15, in which an unspecified number of Chinese soldiers, including a commanding officer died, marked the first time since 1979 that the PLA lost men to a border conflict. The Pangong retreat, they say, is another example that the Ladakh border conflict and the multi-pronged strategy adopted by India has forced China to reconsider threatening tactics that have worked against smaller nations in the Indo-Pacific.
On Tuesday, the Army released videos and photos showing the fast-paced disengagement on both the north and south banks of the Pangong Lake. The videos showed a rapid retreat of Chinese troops, dismantling of bunkers and observation posts on strategic heights and levelling of temporary posts. ET was the first to report that dismantling of military infrastructure has commenced.
“Nowhere in recent times have the Chinese gone back after occupying territory. These are problems they have had with many of their neighbours but they have not let go. The strong stand taken by the Indian Army has resulted in this change,” sources said.
Military analysts say the policy of ‘no blinking, no brinkmanship’ on the border situation has paid dividends. “This is the first time in any of the areas where we have seen recent Chinese aggression that the PLA has gone back. In the South China Sea they have not vacated any of the disputed areas and have been building up despite the presence of the US Navy. That said, this has raised costs for us and we will have to look at building near and mid-term capabilities,” Lt Gen Vinod Bhatia (retd), former Director General, Military Operations, said.
While India had been pushing for the restoration of the pre-April 2020 position by both sides, China had been reluctant and it did not implement the earlier agreement resulting in the scramble for heights and in escalation of deployment, sources explained.
The disengagement process is mutual and reciprocal envisaging removal of structures built by both sides after April 2020 at heights on both banks of the lake. While this disengagement process is to be followed at other places, Chinese agreement for the removal of structures built by the PLA beyond Finger 8 is significant as it has not demolished structures constructed in the South China Sea, despite objections by other disputants and several other countries.
It is assessed that the violence in June was engineered to stabilise the forward positions occupied by the PLA. Patrolling has been stopped temporarily by both sides to pre-empt any fresh face -off. This is to be followed by disengagement at other friction points. The whole disengagement process is in line with what India had been demanding – a restoration of status quo ante, a source claimed.
“The moot question is why China agreed to withdraw after 10 months of standoff. While there are no easy answers, China came under increasing pressure of the changed geo-political situation. China had miscalculated the determination and resolve of India to counter Chinese actions. China had not expected that India would not merely confine to managing the border but would attack the Chinese economic interest in India by banning about 200 Chinese apps and aligning itself closely with key global players,” according to a highly-placed source who has closely observed the stand-off.