India and China move to ease tensions in heavily contested zone

Countries agree to pull back troops engaged in stand-off at border in Himalayan region

The Indian and Chinese armies have begun pulling back troops and heavy material such as tanks and howitzers from a bitterly contested portion of their disputed border in the Himalayas, where they have been locked in a tense stand-off since last May.

Senior officials from the neighbouring nuclear-armed countries said talks between military commanders and diplomats from both sides had led to the decision to withdraw from Pangong Tso, a 4,360m-high glacial lake in the eastern Ladakh region.

The lake, a 134km expanse extending from China's Tibet autonomous region to India's Ladakh area, lies on the disputed 4,057km line of actual control or Loac, the de facto border between the neighbours, over which they fought a bitter war in 1962 in which India came off worse.

Thereafter, an uneasy peace prevailed along the Loac for several decades, during which the rival armies patrolled the unresolved frontier, often straying into the other side’s territory and at times even resorting to fisticuffs.


India's defence minister, Rajnath Singh, told the country's parliament on Thursday that sustained bilateral discussions over several months had resulted in the agreement on troop disengagement along the Pangong lake in a "phased, co-ordinated and verified manner".

Army meeting

India and China also agreed to convene a meeting of senior army commanders 48 hours after completing the disengagement in order to address outstanding issues, Mr Singh said. He did not elaborate.

Mr Singh said that under the mutually agreed troop pull-back arrangement, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) personnel would withdraw and relocate to the lake’s north bank to the east of the mountain spur known as Finger 8. The Indian army would return to their Finger 3 administrative camp, to which they have had no access since the stand-off commenced more than nine months ago.

“It has also been agreed to have a temporary moratorium on military activity by both sides along the north bank [of Pangong lake]aid. Patrolling, he added, would be resumed only after the two sides reached an agreement in further military and diplomatic talks.

Mr Singh said the sides had also agreed to dismantle defence structures they had built around the lake since May 2020, two-thirds of which has long been controlled by China.

On Wednesday, China's defence ministry spokesman Col Wu Qian said in Beijing that front-line Indian and Chinese troops along the Loac would begin a "synchronised and organised disengagement" from February 10th. This was in accordance with the consensus reached at the ninth meeting of Chinese and Indian corps commanders on January 24th.

Sticks and stones

The stand-off between the PLA and the Indian army began in early May 2020, after their Loac patrols clashed using iron rods, sticks and stones resulting in several soldiers being injured.

India accused the PLA of intruding across the Loac deep into areas it claimed as its own. Beijing in turn asserted that its troops were operating on their own territory and charged India with “aggressive and provocative” actions.

Subsequently, in June 2020, 20 Indian soldiers were killed when the two sides clashed with iron rods and stones in the Galwan valley region, close to Pangong lake, registering the first combat losses along the Loac in 45 years. The PLA also suffered an unspecified number of casualties, but declined to admit to any.

Videos released on Thursday by the Indian army showed troops from the opposing forces saluting each other and shaking hands in the barren mountains where the lake is located.

Rahul Bedi

Rahul Bedi

Rahul Bedi is a contributor to The Irish Times based in New Delhi