AT 17,000 feet above sea level, every step you take is an effort. Walk too fast and your heart hammers against your chest as the thin air you breathe doesn’t have enough oxygen. Such is the life of those patrolling the rugged and barren cold desert in the eastern part of Ladakh that borders China. Temperature plummets to minus 30 degrees celsius at Aksai Chin, a flatland measuring 37,000 sq km that both India and China claim as theirs, making it one of the world’s highest battlegrounds. Last week, however, the mercury shot up the other way as news broke of incursions by the Chinese army 19 km into the Indian side in the inhospitable region, triggering a diplomatic crisis the two nations last saw more than a quarter century ago.
But this stand-off between the two nations is materially different from the border episode that flared up briefly between them in the northeast of India in 1987. Not the least because the two countries have since emerged as global economic powerhouses, with China already the world’s second biggest economy behind the US. And as trade and economic relations between India and China grow exponentially, the question being asked is not why China should turn aggressor but why does it not want to settle its several big and small disputes that it has with India along their 3,000-km border.
“By not settling the border dispute, China is able to put pressure on us as well as limit our regional role,” says former Indian foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal. “If they settle the border, our relations would improve and their choices would get limited. They will then have to do things in consultation with us.” The Chinese, he says, want to keep India on the “wrong foot” as a justification to extend their influence in the neighbourhood.
The latest incursion comes barely six months after India and China passed the half century since their only war as sovereign nations in 1962. That war broke out after India said China had invaded its territory in Ladakh and in the states of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam. Its humiliating loss in that war has informed India’s wariness towards its neighbour. Fifty years on, there is still no resolution. Having built a highway across Aksai Chin in 1951, which catalysed the war, China still holds 38,000 sq km of Ladakh and claims a further 96,000 sq km in Arunachal pradesh, which it calls Southern tibet. Why?
“For border agreements, first, there has to be a political agreement between the countries. This should be followed by joint surveys on ground, then a joint delineation on a map, and then a joint demarcation on the ground, border pillars, etc,” explains an official in New Delhi. But this was never done even between the British and the Chinese. The colonial British Survey of India drew maps but never exchanged them with China. Incredible as it may sound, the official says that India’s claims over the Aksai Chin are based on the historical grazing rights of the locals for their livestock.
After the Chinese withdrawal in 1962, a Line of Actual Control (LAC) was established in Aksai Chin. However, it was never made final by the either countries. Despite 15 rounds of border talks, differing perceptions in India and China over the LAC cause over 200 incursions and LAC violations annually. But the media and the political class have gone into a top spin at the latest Chinese incursion at Daulat Beg oldi, a traditional campsite located on the Ladakh-China border that was historically part of an ancient trade route connecting Ladakh to Xinjiang, China’s western province. This is because it is the first time in two decades that the Chinese have crossed the LAC of India’s perception, set up tents and stayed put for over two weeks. As New Delhi tried to underplay the crisis and opposition parties slammed it in parliament for failing to take on the Chinese, the real issue lay forgotten.
The first ever claim to Aksai Chin from India came way back in 1863. WH Johnson, a British-Indian explorer who then went by the designation of Junior Civilian Sub- Assistant, claimed it for the Maharaja of Kashmir as part of a survey to map British India’s borders. The government as well as other explorers, however, trashed Johnson’s claims and his maps were redrawn. Still, the British assigned to the Maharaja a huge area, including 20,000 sq km of a river basin, in Ladakh. This was the classic British “cartographic aggression” of unilaterally claiming territory on maps in the face of a growing territorial threat from Russia.
This area was completely devoid of jurisdictional boundaries and administrative authorities. None among the Kashmiris, the Tibetans and the British had ever shown interest in controlling it. However, the line drawn by the British on a map in favour of the Maharaja sowed the seeds of future conflict. After the British exited from India, China invaded Tibet in 1949 and sets its sights on this part of Ladakh.
As for the India-China border further east, it was realpolitik again that had made a mess of things. The British were looking to establish Tibet as a buffer between India and a rising China and called a tripartite meeting with the rulers of Tibet and China in 1914 at Shimla to establish Tibet’s inner and outer borders. As the story goes, Sir Henry McMahon, a British diplomat who had also served with the Indian Army, used a thick pen and drew a line on a map. The Chinese representative reluctantly initialed that map but his leadership back home rejected it. The McMahon line, as Sir Henry’s doodling has come to be known, dividing India from China is approximately 14-km wide on the ground. Its vagueness apart, the line failed to be a solution because China never accepted it.
Worse, the British kept this agreement a secret until 1935. So even though the McMahon line gave Tawang, a mountain-top ancient town in the northeast, to India, Tibet continued to administer it until that year. Once China annexed Tibet, it began to lay claim to Tawang, too, on the ground that it had been a province of Tibet. China’s occupation of Tibet replaced the flow of trade, friendship and tradition with animosity between China and India. However, given India’s relations with Tibet, the border had never been fortified for war.
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the British claims on tawang and Aksai Chin had yo-yoed from one Viceroy to the next. Few chose to press them. When India won independence from Britain in 1947, it inherited a 3,000-km undecided boundary with China. According to War In High Himalayas, a book published in 1991 by Major Gen (retd) DK Palit, who had served in the 1962 war, India unilaterally decided that the farthest boundaries the British had put forward were final, instead of discussing them with China. Perhaps India hoped that with time, their claims would be accepted.
India is considered to be a decade or more behind China in terms of economic progress. Yet, both countries are competing for the same resources and opportunities globally. India sits astride the hugely lucrative shipping lanes of the Indian ocean. Increasingly, New Delhi has a voice in the international community. By not resolving the border issue, China keeps India unbalanced and forces it to spend massively on its defence and border infrastructure.
“China is a military threat as long as the territorial dispute is not resolved,” says Brigadier (retd) Gurmeet Kanwal, a strategic affairs analyst. “India has to take the necessary measures to keep it at bay, which means spending on troops, military buildup and infrastructure.” the inference is that minus that dispute, the billions on defence could be better spent and the troops on the border utilised elsewhere.
Srikanth Kondapalli, who teaches Chinese Studies at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, points to China’s history of seeking solutions to border disputes. “The Chinese resolve problems only with small or weak countries,” he says. In the 1960s, Beijing moved to resolve problems with Nepal, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Myanmar and Mongolia. But never with Vietnam and India, and did so the Soviet Union only after it broke up in the 1990s and was considerably weakened from it.
“Right now both India and China are on an upswing. By waiting to resolve the issue, China would know which way India is headed,” he says. “Will India become weaker or stronger? At the same time, through massive infrastructural development, China would integrate these areas into its mainland so that any major territorial concession would not be possible.”
The trouble compounded in 1959 as India gave asylum to the Dalai Lama as he fled Tibet. Although India recognises China’s annexation of the sprawling mountainous region, it continues to host a Tibetan government in exile, which angers China. Beijing has also long held that India helped the CIA trigger a decade-long ethnic rebellion in the 1950s in which the US trained and paradropped Tibetan guerrillas into China. By keeping the border unresolved, Beijing also keeps its claim open on Tawang, which has the second-most prestigious monastery in Tibetan Buddhism, after the one in Lhasa.
“China is insecure about Tibet,” says former foreign secretary Sibal. “It feels India has a card there and if it settles the border, it would have to inevitably settle with the Dalai Lama. The two cannot be separated in their minds.” Beijing, it is believed, wants to wait out until the Dalai Lama, 77, passes away, at which point it would install a Dalai Lama of its choosing, divvying up the Tibetans. Under China’s pressure, Nepal has already clamped down on Tibetan exiles within its borders forcing them to roll back protests. Analysts say Beijing wants to keep its claims on Tawang alive so that it can twist India’s arms to crack down on Tibetan protests here.
But opinion is divided on whether the people’s Liberation Army (PLA), which is the armed wing of the Chinese Communist Party and not a national army in the formal sense, is in conflict with the government on the management of disputes with India. “For nearly a decade, the PLA has been at loggerheads with the Foreign office over the border policy not only with India but also in the South China Sea and the East China Sea,” says Kanwal. “The PLA kind of runs its own mini border policy.”
Former Indian ambassador TCA Rangachari, a foreign service officer who once served in China, rejects the view that the PLA has gone solo. “Chinese president Xi Jinping chairs the Central Military Commission, which controls the PLA,” he says. “It is difficult to imagine the PLA would undertake an exercise of a sort that is not just a question of patrolling.” The PLA, most of whose officers are Communist Party members, has a department that is in charge of political training as well as posting and promotions. Its functionaries serve along with military commanders at all levels.
So what are India’s options now? “The government feels, politically we cannot risk a downslide, as it would be accused of failing in the China policy,” says Sibal. “Militarily if things begin to get out of control, it will become difficult for us as the memories of 1962 haunt us.”
The only option is to try and persuade China to withdraw. For India, to accept the Chinese position would be next to impossible as the Constitution mandates a two-third parliamentary support as a prerequisite to amend India’s borders.
On 14 November 1962, shortly after India’s defeat, parliament passed a resolution saying, “…with hope and faith, this house affirms the firm resolve of the Indian people to drive out the aggressor from the sacred soil of India, however long and hard the struggle may be.” A half century later, the aggressor has not only not been driven out but is encroaching more, a mutually acceptable LAC is a mirage, and India’s political landscape is anything but ready to oust the Chinese from Aksai Chin.