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Chinese, Indian troops begin disengagement at Pangong Lake: Report

Indian and Chinese troops have begun simultaneous disengagement at Pangong Tso Lake as part of an agreement reached during the last and ninth round of military talks, the Chinese defence ministry said on Wednesday, a statement that India did not confirm nor deny.

According to China’s defence ministry spokesman Senior Colonel Wu Qian, “The Chinese and Indian frontline troops at the southern and northern bank of the Pangong Tso Lake started synchronized and organized disengagement from 10 February.”

“This move is in accordance with the consensus reached by both sides at the 9th round of China-India Corps Commander Level Meeting,” Wu said in a written statement put out on the defence ministry website.

In New Delhi, there was no official reaction to the Chinese claim. Tensions have been running high between India and China for nine months, since India first detected Chinese intrusions into its territory in May. India quickly mobilized troops to match the Chinese deployment that Indian defence minister Rajnath Singh said had started in April last year. Last month, Indian foreign minister S Jaishankar had warned that India’s ties with China were “truly at a crossroads” and that “choices that are made will have profound repercussions, not just for the two nations but for the entire world.” This came after the ninth round of talks at the level of senior military commanders that both sides had said were “positive, practical and constructive, which further enhanced mutual trust and understanding.” Over the weekend, Jaishankar acknowledged some progress in dialogue but added that they had not influenced the situation on the ground.

Two people familiar with the matter on Wednesday said India was moving some armoured components out accompanied by some “thinning out of troops” from the rear on the Indian side. “We continue to hold strategic heights. Frontline troops are not disengaging at the moment. It is still early days,” one of the people cited above said declining to confirm whether the development could be described as “disengagement.”

News of the pull back of troops came after the markets in India closed for business but analysts predicted a possible rally when trading began on Thursday.

“This is a welcome development from the economy and the markets perspective, though not a major one. However, this pullback needs to be sustained and hostilities should not resume,” said Deepak Jasani, retail-research head, HDFC Securities.

Indian markets, mostly led by foreign money, have gained over 100% from the crash in March last year. With an inflow $5 billion by foreign institutional investors into Indian equities, benchmark Nifty has jumped over 8%, one of best Asian markets performance in 2021 so far. Budget provisions are expected to improve investor sentiment while India equities are likely to remain well supported.

According to strategic analysts, India’s cautious response to China’s claims were understandable given that in early June last year, a month after India ordered troops to the border to match a Chinese deployment along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), there was a violent clash between the two sides in which 20 Indian soldiers and an unspecified number of Chinese troops were killed. The casualties were the first in four decades. The clash took place when Indian soldiers were checking whether the Chinese had stuck to the commitments they had made to withdraw troops from areas perceived to be disputed by the two sides.

“We will not judge the Chinese by their words, we will judge them by their actions,” said former Indian ambassador to China, Gautam Bambawale.

Even if there is disengagement of troops from all the points disputed by India and China in Ladakh during the current standoff, “the trust deficit between the two sides will not be bridged, considering that the Chinese have gone back on almost all the agreements they have signed in decades to stabilise the border,” said the second person cited above.

According to Srikanth Kondapalli, a professor of Chinese Studies from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, the Chinese statement focuses only on the Pangong Tso area, which is one of many areas that have been seen as disputed in the current stand off. There was Galwan, where the clash between the troops took place in June, he pointed out. Other areas include Gogra Post and the Depsang Plains where the Chinese troops were seen to be inside Indian territory, he said.

What was announced on Wednesday could be seen as a “quid pro quo” he said. Under the deal, China could be pulling out of its positions along the northern bank where it had occupied positions that were previously seen as lying within India with India pulling out of the southern bank where in a pre-emptive move in August, India had taken five peaks including one overlooking Chinese positions across the LAC in Moldo.

“But then what happens to the others areas — Depsang plains, Gogra and Galwan where Chinese intrusions have happened,” Kondapalli asked. “We need to wait and see what the India says in its statement,” he added. A third person aware of the development said Defence Minister Rajnath Singh could make a statement in parliament on Thursday.

According to Kondapalli, Beijing might be following old Chinese wisdom that advised against opening too many fronts at the same time. “Given (new US president Joe) Biden’s strong remarks on China, Beijing may be thinking its time to heal the rift with India,” Kondapalli said. He was referring to various comments by Biden and members of his new administration that Beijing was America’s “most serious competitor.”

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