A team comprising defense, foreign and home ministry officials will be a part of the sixth Corps Commander-level meeting that will be held with China on the border standoff in Ladakh on Monday morning.
The meeting, at Chushul-Moldo, is expected to be a marathon one, with India to insist on a time-bound withdrawal of the People’s Liberation Army from all friction points. The Chinese are coming with an agenda to ask India to step down from all strategic heights it has captured in the Chushul sub-sector. No breakthrough is expected in the talks.
The Indian side is being led by Lt General Harinder Singh, the Corps Commander of the Leh based 14 Corps. He and his Chinese counterpart, Major General Liu Lin, have till now engaged for over 60 hours in five previous meetings. Since every sentence spoken has to be translated, the meetings tend to go on for 10 to 12 hours on an average. There was one that lasted 16 hours.
The Indian delegation on Monday will consist of at least 13 military officers, including the Commanders of two divisions responsible for Ladakh - Major General Abhijit Bapat, who heads the 3 Infantry Division and Major General Padam Shekhwat, the GOC of 39th Division. Lt General P Menon , who is slated to take over command of the Leh based 14 Corps in October from Lt Gen Harinder Singh, is also part of the Indian delegation.
As always, the ITBP is part of the meeting and is being represented by Deepam Seth, IG North West Frontier. ITBP jointly patrols forward areas along with the army and reports to the home ministry.
The significant addition to this Military engagement are the diplomats. Navin Srivastav, joint secretary, East Asia at the MEA, is going to be part of the corps commander meeting for the first time. Srivastav has been part of the meetings of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on border affairs with China, and his presence indicates that India wants consistency in its messaging to China when the special representatives talk or when the next round of WMCC discussions take place between India and China.
India’s agenda for the talks has been formalised by the all-powerful China Study Group that has met multiple times over the last two weeks. Defence minister Rajnath Singh, external affairs minister S Jaishankar, NSA Ajit Doval, CDS General Bipin Rawant and Army Chief General MM Naravane have all been part of these meetings.
On top of India’s agenda list is the demand that China must withdraw from all friction points from Depsang Plains to Pangong Tso. They have to commit to a timeline for de-induction of their mechanised and motorised division.
India will also insist on free and unhindered access to the 15 Patrolling Points, which China has currently blocked in Eastern Ladakh. Simple disengagement will not do, India will insist on de-escalation and de-induction. It will also ask for a strict adherence to laid down protocols on troop strength at the Line of Actual Control.
The meeting between the two countries is the first after external affairs minister S Jaishankar and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi met on September 11 in Moscow and agreed upon a five-point consensus. There was much political criticism over the fact that the word ‘Status Quo Ante’ wasn’t part of the statement that was issued post the meeting in Moscow.
Sources say that the Chinese want India to climb down from the strategic heights that India has occupied in the South Bank of Pangong Tso as part of its ‘Area Denial Operations’. India says all these heights - Magar Hill, Gurung Hill, Gorkha Hill and Reqin La are within their side of the LAC and that it needs to maintain troops there to protect its territory.
“There is no chance of India agreeing to status quo ante in south bank, where India and China both have an equal number of strategic heights under their control,” an officer said on the condition of anonymity. These heights had not been manned since the 1962 war.
NO GREAT EXPECTATIONS
There have been five Corps Commander-level talks, four WMCC meets, political engagements between the defense ministers and foreign ministers in Moscow and talks between the special representatives of India and China. Yet, there has been very little forward movement in the standoff in Eastern Ladakh that is entering its fifth month now.
However, the meeting on Monday is expected to keep the situation at the LAC from escalating further. Four incidents of shooting have been reported between the two armies in the last 20 days - a first in 45 years. Earlier, on June 15, India had lost 20 soldiers in hand-to-hand combat with the PLA in Galwan Valley, the first deaths in 45 years.
On the ground, a brutal winter is setting in Ladakh and 50,000 men, armed to the teeth are sitting on either side of the border, waiting for a political signal to decide their fate. By the looks of it, it is going to be a long wait.