Indian, Chinese troops pull back from western Himalayan area

Military disengagement from Gogra-Hot Springs border area comes ahead of expected Xi Jinping, Narendra Modi meeting.

Indian paramilitary soldiers stand guard at check post along a highway leading to Ladakh, at Gagangeer some 81 kilometers from Srinagar [Farooq Khan/EPA]
Indian paramilitary soldiers stand guard along a highway leading to Ladakh, at Gagangir, northeast of Srinagar, India [File: Farooq Khan/EPA]

Indian and Chinese troops have begun disengaging from a key friction point in the western Himalayas, both sides have confirmed, two years after clashes at the frontier strained diplomatic ties.

The military disengagement from the Gogra-Hot Springs border area comes ahead of a meeting in Uzbekistan next week that China’s President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi are expected to attend.

The Asian giants have thousands of soldiers along their de facto border, known as the Line of Actual Control (LAC), where they are backed by artillery, tanks and fighter jets.

The two countries began disengaging from the border area on Thursday, with India’s foreign ministry on Friday saying the disengagement will be completed by September 12.

“The two sides have agreed to cease forward deployments in this area in a phased, coordinated and verified manner, resulting in the return of the troops of both sides to their respective areas,” it said.

“It has been agreed that all temporary structures and other allied infrastructure created in the area by both sides will be dismantled and mutually verified.”

The statement added that the agreement ensures the LAC in the western Himalayas will be “strictly observed and respected by both sides, and that there will be no unilateral change in status quo”.

China’s defence ministry earlier on Friday said troops from both sides had started to disengage in a “synchronised and planned” manner from the area of “Jianan Daban” – using the Chinese name for the disputed border area.

The disengagement “is conducive to maintaining peace and tranquillity in the border areas,” the ministry said.

The “eyeball-to-eyeball contact has ended”, an Indian defence source told Reuters news agency on Thursday. “This is the first step towards a calmer LAC,” said the source, who declined to be identified as they are not authorised to speak to the media.

India and China share an un-demarcated 3,800km (2,360 mile) border, where their troops previously adhered to longstanding protocols to avoid the use of any firearms.

There have been 16 rounds of meetings between senior military commanders from both sides since June 2020 when Indian and Chinese troops clashed in the Galwan area of the Ladakh region.

At least 20 Indian and four Chinese soldiers were killed in hand-to-hand fighting in the Galwan Valley in June 2020, the first combat losses on the disputed border in more than 40 years.

The clashes led to a sharp escalation in tension between the nuclear-armed Asian giants, and troops remained in close proximity on other parts of the undefined border including at Gogra-Hot Springs and the Depsang plains, officials said.

India also moved some 50,000 troops along contested areas in Ladakh to match Chinese deployments, some of them at altitudes of more than 15,000 feet (4,572 metres), where scarce oxygen and freezing temperatures can be life-threatening.

As part of an earlier agreement to pull back troops from potential flashpoints, Chinese troops dismantled dozens of structures and moved vehicles to empty out entire camps from the banks of the Pangong Tso lake in Ladakh in February 2021.

Both countries, which fought a full-scale border war in1962, have regularly accused each other of trying to seize territory along their unofficial divide, the LAC.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies