As the border standoff entered the sixth month, an early resolution to the row appears dim.
The talks at the Corps commander level began at around 12 noon in Chushul on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh, official sources said.
The Indian delegation is led by Lt Gen Harinder Singh, the commander of the Leh-based 14 Corps, and includes Naveen Srivastava, Joint Secretary (East Asia) in the Ministry of External Affairs(MEA).
Close to 100,000 Indian and Chinese troops are deployed in eastern Ladakh as both sides are holding their ground and also showing readiness for a long-haul even as diplomatic and military talks to find an amicable solution continue.
The talks in Chushul are underway, the sources said.
Ahead of the talks, the sources said India will press for an early and complete disengagement of troops by China from all the friction points besides demanding restoration of immediate restoration of status quo ante in all areas of eastern Ladakh prior to April. The standoff began on May 5.
The agenda for the talks is to firm up a roadmap for disengagement of troops from all the friction points in eastern Ladakh, the sources said.
The China Study Group (CSG) comprising Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, Chief of Defence Staff Gen Bipin Rawat and three service chiefs on Friday finalised India’s strategy for the military talks. The CSG is India’s key policy making body on China.
The sources said India will strongly oppose any demand by China for withdrawal of Indian troops from several strategic heights on the southern bank of the Pangong lake to kick-start the disengagement process.
During the sixth round of Corps commander talks on September 21, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army(PLA) insisted on withdrawal of troops by the Indian Army from several strategic heights in Mukhpari, Rezang La and Magar hill areas around the southern bank of Pangong lake.
Indian troops had occupied the strategic heights after the PLA soldiers attempted to intimidate them in the southern bank of Pangong lake on the intervening night of August 29 and 30.
India has been maintaining that the disengagement process has to start simultaneously at all the friction points.
At the talks, the two sides are expected to further explore steps to maintain stability on the ground and avoid any action that may trigger fresh tension in the region where troops from both sides will be facing difficult conditions in the next four months due to harsh winter, the sources said.
Following the sixth round of military talks, the two sides announced a slew of decisions including not to send more troops to the frontline, refrain from unilaterally changing the situation on the ground and avoid taking any actions that may further complicate matters.
The military talks were held with a specific agenda of exploring ways to implement a five-point agreement reached between Jaishankar and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi at a meeting in Moscow on September 10 on the sidelines of a Shanghai Cooperation Organisation(SCO) conclave.
The pact included measures like quick disengagement of troops, avoiding action that could escalate tensions, adherence to all agreements and protocols on border management and steps to restore peace along the LAC.
Days after the military talks, the two sides held diplomatic parleys under the framework of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination (WMCC) on border affairs, but no concrete outcome emerged from the negotiations on September 30.
After the diplomatic talks, the MEA said it was agreed that the next round of the meeting of senior commanders should be held at an early date so that both sides can work towards an early and complete disengagement of the troops along the LAC in accordance with the existing bilateral agreement and protocols.
Srivastava, who has been leading the Indian side at the WMCC talks, also attended the military parleys on September 21 for the first time.
It is Lt Gen Singh’s last round of talks with the PLA in the current standoff as he is due to take charge as head of the prestigious Indian Military Academy(IMA) this week. His successor at the 14 Corps Lt Gen PGK Menon is also part of the Indian delegation.
At the previous six rounds of military talks, the Indian side insisted on complete disengagement of Chinese troops at the earliest, and immediate restoration of status quo ante in all areas of eastern Ladakh prior to April.
The situation in eastern Ladakh deteriorated following at least three attempts by the Chinese soldiers to “intimidate” Indian troops along the northern and southern bank of Pangong lake area between August 29 and September 8 where even shots were fired in the air for the first time at the LAC in 45 years.
As tensions escalated further, the foreign ministers of India and China held talks in Moscow on September 10 where they reached a five-point agreement to defuse the situation in eastern Ladakh.
The agreement was the basis for the sixth round of Corps commander-level talks.
In the last three months, the Indian Army rushed tanks, heavy weaponry, ammunition, fuel, food and essential winter supplies to various treacherous and high-altitude areas of the region to maintain combat readiness through the harsh winter of around four months starting around mid-October.