Ladakh’s Pangong Fingers emerge as key focal point in India-China talks

New Delhi:While a “mutual consensus to disengage” from “all friction areas” along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) was reached during a meeting between Indian and Chinese commanders on Monday, it is the restoration of status quo ante in the Finger Area on the north bank of Ladakh’s Pangong Tso lake that will determine the success of efforts to cool tensions along the contested border, officials and China watchers said on Tuesday.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has set up permanent bunkers, pillboxes and observation posts between Fingers Four and Eight and getting it to pull down those structures and move back to their original positions at Finger Eight will be the toughest part of the disengagement process, said an official asking not to be named.

The Finger Area refers to a set of eight cliffs jutting out of the Sirijap range that overlooks the Pangong lake.

Before Chinese forces occupied vantage positions on Finger Four in early May, Indian Army soldiers would patrol right up to Finger Eight, which New Delhi considers to be its territory, said another official asking not to be named. The new Chinese positions have restricted the scope of Indian patrols. Fingers Four and Eight are eight kilometers apart. Satellite imagery shows that several of these positions came up after the current round of border tensions erupted on May 5-6.

The Indian claim line in this sector extends to Finger Eight, while the Chinese claim is up to Finger Four till where PLA has constructed a vehicle track.

“Getting PLA to pull back from Finger Four to Finger Eight will be a huge challenge. Their intentions can be discerned from their military posturing in the sector and the new positions and structures that have come up,” said former Northern Army commander Lieutenant General DS Hooda (retd).

The army is concerned about PLA’s presence in the Finger Area, especially its activities between Finger Four and Finger Eight over the last seven weeks. “It is not just about the Finger Area. You could next see PLA creating the same situation in Depsang, Chumar, Demchok and areas in the eastern sector on the basis of their perception of the border,” Hooda said.

The Finger Area was the only sector, where limited disengagement did not begin after the two sides reached an understanding to implement a de-escalation plan to ease rising tensions along the border during a meeting between senior Indian and Chinese commanders. The area has been at the centre of the weeks-long border standoff between India and China that has plunged the bilateral relationship to a new low.

“The PLA has entrenched itself in the Finger Area. It will be the biggest challenge that the disengagement process will encounter,” said Lieutenant General Vinod Bhatia (retd), a former director-general of military operations.

The modalities for disengagement from all friction areas were discussed at the meeting between senior Indian and Chinese commanders at Moldo on Monday.