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India, China Hold Talks on Border Disengagement

A policeman stands guard at the Zojila tunnel under construction which connects Srinagar, Kashmir, to the Indian union territory of Ladakh bordering China.

Indian and Chinese army commanders are holding talks beginning Wednesday to disengage troops from a key area along their contested border in Ladakh in an attempt to ease a 20-month military standoff.

The two sides reportedly are focusing on withdrawing from Hot Springs, one of several friction points that emerged after Indian and Chinese soldiers fought a violent clash in May 2020.

Since then, both countries have massed tens of thousands of troops, along with artillery and fighter jets, at disputed areas along their approximately 3,400-kilometer-long border.

Indian army officials said the talks will conclude either late Wednesday or Thursday.

Last year, the two sides pulled back troops from a strategic Himalayan lake, Pangong, in the Gogra area, but subsequent talks held in October to discuss disengaging at other places ended in a deadlock, with both sides blaming each other for a lack of progress.

India accuses Chinese troops of having intruded into territory it controls in several areas and wants it to withdraw to positions China held prior to the military standoff. China denies it and wants to maintain the status quo along the border.

Ahead of the talks, both countries described the situation along the border as “stable.” But India’s army chief, M.M. Naravane, said at an annual press conference Wednesday that de-escalation and withdrawal of troops would depend on the success of the talks the two sides are holding.

“I am hopeful of further developments in the days ahead. But while there has been partial disengagement, the threat has by no means [been] reduced," he said.

“If talks prolong, so be it. We are prepared to hold our ground where we are for as long as it takes to achieve our national goals and interest,” he told reporters.

On Tuesday, China appeared to put the onus for progress on India. “We hope the Indian side can work with China and strive to switch from emergency response to normalized management and control in the border area as soon as possible,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said. He described the situation along the India-China border as “generally stable.”

Ahead of the talks, the U.S. said it is closely monitoring the situation along the India-China border and supports “peaceful resolution of these border disputes.”

“We’ve been pretty clear how we view Beijing’s behavior in the region and around the world. We believe it can be destabilizing. And, we’re concerned by the [People’s Republic of China]’s attempt to intimidate its neighbors,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said at a regular press briefing Monday in Washington in response to a question on China’s “aggressive behavior” on its border with India.

“We’ll continue to stand with our partners on that,” Psaki said.

Analysts say the huge trust deficit that has emerged between the two sides means the India-China border will continue to remain heavily militarized even if they achieve progress in disengaging troops from some areas.