Disengagement at Doklam: Troops stepped back 150 metres each side, remain on plateau

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi completed a successful visit to China for the BRICS summit, which included a frank bilateral discussion Tuesday with Chinese President Xi Jinping, new details have emerged about the disengagement of Indian and Chinese troops in the Doklam area last week. But the first stage of disengagement, which reduced tensions and paved the way for Modi’s China visit, has still left Indian and Chinese soldiers on the Dolam plateau, even though they are separated by nearly 300 metres since August 28.

Multiple sources have told The Indian Express that this disengagement — wherein both sets of soldiers, along with their tents and road construction equipment, moved away from the faceoff site on Dolam plateau but only by a distance of around 150 metres each — is fully in accordance with the two statements issued by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) on August 28.

In its first statement, issued at noon, the MEA had said that “expeditious disengagement of border personnel at the faceoff site at Doklam has been agreed to and is ongoing”. The second MEA statement, issued later in the evening, stated that “the process (of expeditious disengagement) has since been almost completed under verification”.

According to official sources, the terms for disengagement were decided in diplomatic negotiations at Beijing, which were led by the Indian ambassador to China, Vijay Gokhale, and handled at the highest levels of the government in Delhi. The Army headquarters was closely involved in the consultations, but the final proposal was conveyed to the Brigadier at Nathu La on Saturday, August 26. He, along with his Chinese counterpart, got around to working out the process of disengagement which would be verified by both sides.

Under the agreed terms, it was to be a mutual but sequential withdrawal from the faceoff site, where the two groups of soldiers had been in an eyeball-to-eyeball situation for 71 days. The Indian soldiers — along with their tents and bulldozers which were up to around 400 metres inside Bhutanese territory — would move out first to their side of the border, before noon. This was to be followed by a Chinese withdrawal to Yatung (Yadong) or further north, way beyond the Chumbi Valley. As per sources, a few hours were set upon and decided for each of the withdrawals to take place. The withdrawal could then be verified by the other side after that time.

While the Indian communication lines were quick from Beijing down to Dolam, the Chinese communications through the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) were perhaps not that efficient and timely, sources said. This led to some confusion and made the Indians cautious in their withdrawal from the standoff site in the morning, as per sources. Many frantic calls between Doklam and New Delhi followed. Though tentative about the Chinese response to their withdrawal, the Indian side decided to go ahead with its move.
Eventually, by noon, the Indians had moved away by around 150 metres — partly back on to the Indian side, with a spillover into Bhutanese territory — by first moving out the soldiers, followed by tents and then the bulldozers. As agreed upon, the Indian side issued a statement in Delhi about the ongoing “expeditious disengagement”. Because of delay in passage of orders, bad weather in Dolam plateau and additional time taken in removing their tents, the Chinese side asked for extra time from what was agreed upon. The Chinese movement by 150 metres from the faceoff site was completed in early afternoon, and verified by the Indians. The second MEA statement was issued after that verification.

Sources also told The Indian Express that the current state of redeployment, where the two groups of soldiers are at a distance of 300 metres, is only an intermediary stage. They are hopeful that the two sides will further withdraw from their current locations, eventually resulting in a status quo as on June 16, when the Chinese road construction party had moved in. Sources refused to put a firm date on completion of full withdrawal but were hopeful that it could be in a matter of weeks, if not days, as it is dependent on the internal Chinese political calendar, which includes the Communist Party Congress next month.

Top government sources told The Indian Express that the Army’s proposal for better operational readiness of troops on the China border in Eastern Command has been implemented. This involves keeping one-third troops in every brigade in a high-altitude area at all time, where they remain acclimatised to operate at high altitudes and can be deployed at short notice.
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