Finger Area in focus as India, China hold talks

Top Indian and Chinese military commanders on Sunday met in eastern Ladakh to discuss the next stage of disengagement along the contested Line of Actual Control (LAC), with negotiations entering a critical phase due to serious differences between the two armies in the Finger Area near Pangong Tso and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s reluctance to vacate positions held by it in what New Delhi claims to be Indian territory, people familiar with the talks said on the condition of anonymity.

The Finger Area — a set of eight cliffs jutting out of the Sirijap range overlooking the Pangong Lake — has emerged as the hardest part of the disengagement process with little hope of immediate resolution, said one of the officials cited above.

The talks — the fifth round of negotiations between corps commander-ranked officers — began at around 11.30am at Moldo on the Chinese side of the LAC and were in progress when this report was filed.

The latest round of military negotiations came three days after Chinese ambassador Sun Weidong said his country’s traditional boundary line on the northern bank of the Pangong Lake was in accordance with the LAC and there was no case of Beijing expanding its territorial claim.

The ambassador’s contention was a clear indication of the Chinese hard line on its claims in the Finger Area, said a second official.

Before the PLA grabbed positions on Finger Four overlooking Indian deployments, the Indian Army would patrol right up to Finger Eight that New Delhi considers within Indian territory. The new positions held by the PLA have curtailed the scope of Indian patrols. Fingers Four and Eight are eight kilometres apart.

“It is becoming increasingly evident that breaking the Finger Area deadlock may require diplomatic intervention,” said the second official.

The Indian claim line in this sector extends to Finger Eight, while the Chinese claim is up to Finger Four where the PLA has set up permanent bunkers, pillboxes, observation posts and tented camps over the last three months.

“The new constructions by the PLA in the Finger Area and its deployments there show there is an element of permanence in their claims to the area. That coupled with the Chinese ambassador’s statement is an indication that the PLA is inclined to hold its positions on the north bank of Pangong Tso,” said former Northern Army commander Lieutenant General (retd) DS Hooda.

Disengagement has progressed somewhat smoothly at friction points in Galwan Valley and Hot Springs but its pace remains sluggish in the Gogra area, said a third official.

De-escalation of the border conflict with China can only begin complete disengagement between the two armies along the LAC. The ground situation remains unchanged in the Ladakh sector where both armies have deployed almost 100,000 soldiers and weaponry in their forward and depth areas and are prepared for a long haul through the winter months.

Last month, defence minister Rajnath Singh clearly indicated that resolving the tensions along the LAC between the two nuclear powers was a challenging process.

During a visit to Ladakh on July 17, he said progress in negotiations should help resolve the border dispute but added that he “couldn’t guarantee to what extent the situation will be resolved.”

In July-end, Northern Army commander Lieutenant General YK Joshi said disengagement between forward deployed Indian and Chinese soldiers from friction areas along the LAC was a complex and intricate process that required diligent execution.

Last week, India rejected China’s contention that disengagement has been completed at most locations along their disputed border, with New Delhi calling on Beijing to work sincerely for complete de-escalation and full restoration of peace along the LAC.

External affairs ministry spokesperson Anurag Srivastava acknowledged there has been some progress towards disengagement and de-escalation along the LAC, though the process is far from complete.

The sizeable Chinese troop presence at friction points, particularly Pangong Lake and Depsang, remains a concern, with the Chinese side yet to deliver on understandings regarding disengagement reached during the July 5 phone conversation of the special representatives on the border issue and meetings of corps commanders.

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