SRINAGAR/NEW DELHI, Indian (Reuters) - India and China simultaneously withdrew troops from camps a few meters apart in a Himalayan desert on Sunday, apparently ending a three-week standoff on a freezing plateau where the border is disputed and the Asian giants fought a war 50 years ago.
The two sides stood down after reaching an agreement during a meeting between border commanders, an Indian army official told Reuters, after the tension threatened to overshadow a planned visit by India’s foreign minister to Beijing on Thursday.
But it was not immediately clear how far China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers had withdrawn - Delhi had claimed they were 19 km (12 miles) beyond the point it understands to be the border with China, a vaguely defined de facto line called the Line of Actual Control, which neither side agrees on.
Defence and foreign ministry spokesmen did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
“Our troops have moved one kilometre backwards from the position they were on since April 16,” said the officer, from the Indian army’s Northern Command, which oversees the disputed region on the fringes of India’s Jammu and Kashmir state.
“Chinese troops have also moved away from their position they were holding on since April 15 when they intruded in Indian territory. It is not clear yet how (far) the PLA moved back.”
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India considered it the worst border incursion for years.
New Delhi often appears insecure about relations with its powerful neighbour, despite slowly warming relations between Asia’s largest countries. China is India’s top trade partner, but the unresolved border sours the friendship.
India’s opposition and much of the media has been critical of the government’s handling of the standoff, drawing parallels with a 1962 war which ended in its humiliating defeat. On Friday, parliament was adjourned after members shouted “Get China out, save the country”.
India says Chinese troops intruded into its territory on the western rim of the Himalayas on April 15. Some officials and experts believe the incursion signalled Chinese concern about increased Indian military activity in the area.
A group of about 30 Chinese soldiers, backed by helicopters, had pitched several tents near a 16th century Silk Road campsite called Daulat Beg Oldi, close to an air strip New Delhi uses to support troops on the Siachen glacier.
Each day since, Indian and Chinese soldiers and border guards left their camps and stood about 100 metres (330 feet) apart on the Depsang Plain, a 5,000 meter (16,400 feet) high desert ringed by jagged peaks of the Karakoram range.
Winter temperatures can drop to minus 30 degrees centigrade, and the area is lashed by icy strong winds all year round.
A photograph released by a source in the Indian army showed a group of six Chinese soldiers on a rock-strewn landscape holding a bright orange banner that read, in English and Mandarin, “This is the Line of Actual Control, You are in Chinese territory”.
Delhi reopened the Daulat Beg Oldi airstrip in 2008. Two other runways, out of use since the war, have been opened and Daulat Beg Oldi has been upgraded since.
Siachen, at the north of the disputed region of Kashmir, is claimed by both India and Pakistan and has the dubious distinction of being the world’s highest battlefield.
Tensions are likely to persist given India and China’s increased presence in an area that for centuries was largely unclaimed and criss-crossed with caravan routes. Now the land abuts the Karakoram Highway joining Pakistan to China, which Beijing hopes to develop further as trade route linking it to the Arabian Sea port of Gwadar.
Speaking before Sunday’s resolution, Srikanth Kondapalli, an Indian analyst who specialises in China studies, said the dispute lay close to large hydroelectric projects and an ambitious plan to expand the Karakoram highway.
He said the lack of agreement about where the border lies, combined with increased military and infrastructure activity meant more flashpoints were likely.
“It is a no-man’s land,” said Kondapalli, who considers the current standoff to be more serious than the usual cross-border incidents. “Even if the (present) issue is resolved, this will only flare up.”
Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Jon Hemming