India

Pangong Tso disengagement accord reduces military friction at Naku La

The impact of the disengagement by the Indian Army and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China on Pangong Tso has apparently led to an easing of tensions on Naku La, which saw friction and a face-off between the two militaries since May 2020. Situated south-west of the Kanchenjunga peak, the over 14,000-feet-high pass in north Sikkim had seen fisticuffs between the two armies on May 9, 2020, and as late as January 20, 2021, with injuries to troopers on both sides.

While the Narendra Modi government is tight-lipped about Naku La, Hindustan Times, after talking to top military commanders and diplomats, has learnt that the just like the Pangong Tso disengagement, the easing of tensions on Naku La has been dictated by the highest levels in Beijing with a renewed effort to build trust and normalise relations. The decision-making authority in the PLA’s case is the Central Military Commission headed by President Xi Jinping, who is also the commander-in-chief of China’s defence forces.

“The speed at which the PLA has moved its troops beyond Finger 8 on the north bank of Pangong Tso towards Srijap plains and beyond as well as withdrawal of no less than 220 Chinese light tanks from south banks of Pangong Tso clearly shows that the instructions have come from the highest level in Beijing,” said a former army chief. It is understood that Chinese disengagement is more or less complete on the north bank and the exercise on south banks is to move from the lake to the Kailash Range.

According to a top Indian diplomat, Beijing’s decision to disengage from Pangong Tso starting on February 10 was not because its military positions were not tenable but to stop the downward spiral in bilateral relations since former Western Theatre Commander, General Zhao Zongqi, went on aggressive mode at Pangong Tso last May. “China had invested a lot in removing the 1962 conflict from Indian memory by making deliberate efforts to improve bilateral relations. All this went for a toss last May and a new generation of Indians born in the new millennium has again witnessed the perfidy of PLA and mistrust with China. Perhaps the disengagement is part of an effort to stem the rapid slide in bilateral ties,” said a senior official.

According to senior military officers, Indian Army commanders raised the question of severe mistrust with their PLA counterparts, citing the continued friction at Naku La while the Pangong Tso disengagement agreement was reached on February 10. It is learnt that just to prove that the PLA was committed to genuine disengagement with the Indian Army, a battalion commander sought a meeting with his Indian counterpart at Naku La on the same day, assuring no further transgression from the Chinese side.

In the past six years, PLA patrols have tended to come down the ridge past the Indian perception of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Naku La area as a result of which there have been physical face-offs. Although the Chinese base is well behind the ridge line, the PLA in the past has made an effort to cross Naku La and reach a wall constructed by local Indian graziers.

“The face-off around Naku La has been a new development of past six years and any easing of tension bodes well for bilateral ties. Reports indicate that the PLA has gone back to its permanent base, a template used in disengagement in Galwan and Pangong Tso,” said the former army chief cited above.

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