China ready to talk on all flashpoints: Officials

NEW DELHI: There are signs of a forward movement in military talks between India and China, with the neighbour agreeing to discuss disengagement at all flashpoints in eastern Ladakh and not insisting on talking about only the southern bank of Pangong Tso where the Indian Army holds dominating heights, officials familiar with developments said on Monday.

The Indian side is considering a Chinese proposal for disengagement at all friction points, including some that the neighbour had been unwilling to discuss till now, and the next meeting of the military commanders is expected to be held by Friday, the officials said, asking not to be named.

The Chinese side shared the proposal at the eighth round of talks between senior commanders from the Indian Army and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Chushul on November 6, said one of the officials cited above. India has been demanding that the dialogue should focus on all flashpoints along the contested Line of Actual Control (LAC) and not be confined to a specific sector.

The next round of talks between corps commander-ranked officers from the two armies could take place as early as this week.

There was currently no proposal for a meeting of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination (WMCC) on border affairs, which forms the diplomatic leg of the ongoing discussions on disengagement and de-escalation, the official said.

“Joint secretary (East Asia) Naveen Srivastava of the external affairs ministry, who co-chairs the WMCC, has been part of the most recent meetings of the military commanders and there is no real need for separate meetings of the WMCC,” he said.

There is also a perception on the Indian side that the Chinese military is grappling with the difficulties of mobilising and deploying tens of thousands of troops along the LAC during the harsh winter – something that it hasn’t done in the past, a second official said.

In a joint statement issued after the November 6 talks, the two sides said they would ensure their frontline soldiers “exercise restraint and avoid misunderstanding and miscalculation” along the LAC.

The statement also said both sides agreed to maintain dialogue and communication through military and diplomatic channels, take forward the November 6 discussions and push for the settlement of “other outstanding issues.”

Until now, China had been insisting that India withdraw its soldiers from strategic heights on the southern bank of Pangong Tso to reduce friction along the LAC, while the India side was firmly pushing for comprehensive disengagement at all flashpoints and restoration of status quo ante of early April during the military talks.

“With China agreeing to discuss all flashpoints, we hope future talks lead to some breakthrough. Earlier, they were only focussed on the southern bank of the lake,” said a third official.

The PLA’s aggressive forward deployments in the eastern Ladakh theatre have hindered the Indian Army’s patrolling patterns in Depsang, Finger Area on the northern bank of Pangong Tso, Gogra and Kongka La.

The scope of the military talks changed after the Indian Army occupied a series of key heights to prevent the PLA from grabbing chunks of Indian territory on the southern bank of Pangong Tso in a stealthy midnight move on August 29.

Former Northern Army commander Lieutenant General DS Hooda (retd) said: “If the PLA is willing to discuss disengagement at all friction points, it is at least a sign of some moderation in their stand. However, keeping in view the positions that both sides have taken in the military and diplomatic level talks held so far, we should not expect any quick breakthroughs.”

The Indian Army now controls ridgeline positions on the lake’s southern bank that allow it to completely dominate the sector and keep an eye on Chinese military activity, with the positions scattered across Rezang La, Reqin pass, Gurung Hill and Magar heights.

The Indian Army has also taken control of key heights overlooking the PLA’s deployments on the Finger 4 ridgeline on the northern bank of Pangong Tso where rival soldiers are deployed barely a few hundred metres from each other.

Last week, Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat said India will not accept shifting of the LAC in eastern Ladakh even as he did not rule out the possibility of the situation escalating into a larger conflict in the sensitive theatre.

In September, defence minister Rajnath Singh told lawmakers in Parliament that no force in the world can stop the Indian Army from patrolling the country’s borders in the Ladakh sector, signalling a strong resolve to regain access to several areas that are now difficult to reach due to actions by the Chinese army along the LAC.

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