Much as President of China Xi Jinping is telling his people time and again to prepare for war, the army of the country, the PLA, has pulled back at least 10,000 soldiers from depth areas in the Ladakh theatre to rear positions in the midst of the ongoing border standoff between India and China, officials familiar with the development said on 11 January.
However, the PLA’s frontline deployments remain unchanged, said one of the officials cited above. The withdrawal of troops appears to be linked to extreme weather conditions in the sector, said a second official.
The Chinese troop withdrawal, experts said, has to be seen against the backdrop of the overall Indian and Chinese military deployments in the theatre — both armies have deployed a total of 1,00,000 soldiers and weaponry in their forward and depth areas.
“In winters, large-scale or even limited military operations are ruled out. That’s possibly the reason why the PLA has withdrawn troops from depth areas,” said former Northern Army commander Lieutenant General (retd) DS Hooda.
The reduction of 10,000 troops has happened over the last week to 10 days, said a third official. The Indian army is closely monitoring the developments in the Ladakh theatre as a re-induction of troops by the PLA in the sector cannot be ruled out, said a fourth official.
The Ladakh standoff is in its ninth month, with soldiers holding forward positions at friction points in extreme weather conditions. The two armies have held eight rounds of military talks so far, with dates yet to be announced for the delayed ninth round of dialogue between corps commander-level officers.
Even as the ground situation remains unchanged in the Ladakh sector, chief of defence (CDS) staff General Bipin Rawat on 11 January reached Leh for a security review of the sensitive area. Indian Air Force chief Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria also visited forward areas in eastern Ladakh on 11 January.
General Rawat’s two-day tour will see him visit forward locations in Kashmir.
During the Ladakh leg of the tour, the CDS will be briefed by the local military leadership on the prevailing security situation, officials said. He will visit forward areas in the sector and interact with troops deployed there.
The air chief on 11 January visited air force stations and advanced landing grounds (ALGs) in the Ladakh sector, the IAF said in a statement.
The air chief was briefed on the air force’s operational readiness to deal with any contingency in the Ladakh theatre, amid the ongoing border row with China. He interacted with IAF personnel deployed at forward locations.
“During his visit to Thoise, he reviewed the ongoing logistics operations for support and sustenance of troops in the winter season. He visited DBO and Nyoma ALGs where he was given a security overview in the respective sub-sectors,” the statement said.
The air chief also joined the CDS for a comprehensive discussion on operational matters with senior IAF and Indian Army commanders at the Leh airbase, it said.
In a year-end review of major developments published on 1 January, the defence ministry said the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) escalated the situation in the sensitive theatre by using unorthodox weapons against Indian soldiers and amassing a large number of troops during the ongoing border standoff along the contested Line of Actual Control (LAC).
The ministry said the PLA attempted to alter the status quo in the sector by force but the Indian Army was well-entrenched to counter any misadventure by the adversary.
In his first official engagement outside the Capital in the New Year, General Rawat visited India’s forward air bases in the eastern sector on 2-3 January and interacted with frontline soldiers in Arunachal Pradesh.
“Nothing can deter the Indian armed forces from remaining steadfast in their call of duty,” he said during that visit. While the current border row is confined to the Ladakh theatre, the Indian military is on high alert to deal with any misadventure by the China forces all along the border — stretching from Ladakh in the north to Arunachal Pradesh in the east.
While India has consistently pushed for comprehensive disengagement at all flashpoints and restoration of status quo ante of early April during the military talks, the China side wants the Indian Army to first pull back troops deployed on strategic heights on the southern bank of Pangong Tso.
The Indian Army swiftly moved and occupied a series of key heights to prevent the PLA from grabbing Indian territory on the southern bank in a stealthy midnight move on 29 August.
The Indian Army now controls ridgeline positions on the southern bank of Pangong Tso that allow it to completely dominate the sector and keep an eye on China military activity, with the positions scattered across Rezang La, Reqin pass, Gurung Hill and Magar heights.
The Indian Army has taken control of key heights overlooking the PLA’s deployments on the Finger 4 ridgeline on the northern bank of Pangong Tso where rival soldiers are deployed barely a few hundred metres from each other. The developments on both banks of Pangong Tso have increased India’s bargaining power during talks with the China side, as previously media reported.