China’s new President has a Dream! A Chinese Dream! In this dream, the Middle kingdom would be corruption free, people would be happy, the differences of income would less shocking than today, China would be a powerful nation. A couple of months back, I asked a Chinese friend: what are the implications of this Dream for India? He answered: “there is no connection; President Xi has also a Dream for the World, he wants a peaceful and harmonious world”.
I had some doubts, but I kept quiet. We have now the answer. The Chinese troops are now in India’s Ladakh. Would you call it an intrusion, incursion, transgression or violation? It does not matter, as it is ‘perceptional’!
Let us look at the facts: For centuries, the Great Himalayas were an incident-free customary natural border between Tibet and India. Then in 1950, the Chinese invaded the Roof of the World. Progressively, the People’s Liberation Army spread over the Tibetan plateau, building roads, airstrips and setting up garrisons. The border became the Line of Actual Control. Now, the LAC has become ‘perceptional’. This is a convenient appellation for the Chinese as they can enter at will places they perceive as ‘theirs’, plant their tents or send their yaks to graze.
The Times of India reported that New Delhi “has recorded well over 600 ‘transgressions’ the Government’s euphemism for cross-border intrusions all along the unresolved 4,057 km Line of Actual Control by the People’s Liberation Army”. And this, over the last three years alone. The latest Chinese ‘perceptional’ land- grabbing, marks a new leap forward; this time, the Chinese have come much deeper into India’s territory and in a larger number. According to media reports, a large group of Chinese soldiers set up a camp some 10 km inside the Indian territory in the Daulat Beg Oldi sector of Ladakh on April 15. To make things worse, two helicopters apparently provided logistic support to the Chinese troops.
India asserted its own ‘perception’ two days later, sending a battalion of Ladakh Scouts to camp some 500 metres from the Chinese position. An officer told The Times of India: “Our soldiers are conducting ‘banner drills’ (waving banners and placards at the Chinese troops to show it is Indian territory) through the day.” Reuters quotes another official: “Ladakh in particular…is being targeted. Though Chinese troops usually go back after marking their presence, they are increasingly coming deeper and deeper into our territory with the aim to stake claim to disputed areas.” The Indian Government says one should not worry, that many mechanisms are in place: “The two countries are in touch with each other to resolve the row.” It is true that an Agreement on the Establishment of a Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs was signed on January 17, 2012, but it is clear that the Chinese use these mechanisms (including the 1993 and 1996 border agreements) to do what they please.
A question should be asked: Why is the LAC still not defined? What was the point of successive National Security Advisers meeting their Chinese counterparts 15 times since 2003 if they are unable to define an ‘actual’ line? The blame is usually put on the ‘insincerity’ of the Chinese side which is not ready for the slightest compromise, but it is also a fact that instinctively the Indian leadership prefers to hide behind a ‘mechanism’, to not ‘hurt’ our Chinese neighbours’ feelings or ‘makes things worse’, especially when the Chinese Premier is expected in New Delhi.
A telling incident is worth recalling. In September 1956, 20 Chinese crossed over the Shipki-la pass into Himachal Pradesh. A 27-member Border Security Force party met the Chinese the same day. They were told by a Chinese officer that he had been instructed to patrol right up to Hupsang Khad (four miles south of Shipki La, the acknowledged border pass). The BSF were advised “to avoid an armed clash but not yield to the Chinese troops.”
New Delhi did not know how to react. A few days later, Prime Minister Nehru wrote to the Foreign Secretary: “I agree with [your] suggestion… it would not be desirable for this question to be raised in the Lok Sabha at the present stage.” The Indians MPs, being unpredictable, may raise a hue and cry. So, it is better to keep it secret and eventually mention it ‘informally’ to Chinese officials, thought the Prime Minister. Finally, the Ministry of External Affairs told Beijing: “The Government of India are pained and surprised at this conduct of the Chinese commanding officer.” This was 56 years ago. Is the situation different today?
Chinese incursions continued in the 1950s in Garwal (Barahoti), Himachal Pradesh (Shipkila) and then spread to Ladakh and the North-East Frontier Agency. Mao’s regime could have only been encouraged by the Government of India’s feeble complaints. Hundreds of such protests have been recorded in the 15 volumes of the White Papers published till 1965 by the Union Ministry of External Affairs. Read them and you will know that nothing is new under the Himalayan Sun.
New Delhi should have noticed earlier that Beijing did not want to settle the border. In March 1954, TN Kaul, the Joint Secretary negotiating the ‘born in sin’ Panchsheel Agreement with China, thought he was being clever to name a few border passes in the accord and that it would be enough to automatically define the frontier. He was in for a big surprise when the Chinese presented a draft that read: “The Chinese Government agrees to open the following mountain passes in the Ari [Ngari] District of the Tibet Region of China for entry by traders and pilgrims of both parties: Shipki, Mana, Niti, Kungribingri, Darma and Lipu Lekh”. China ‘permitted’ India to cross Indian border passes. Though the Chinese later agreed to rephrase the article, Beijing never agreed that the border had thus been demarcated. Kaul had been taken for a ride.
During the Sino-Indian border talks in Beijing in 1960, the Chinese reiterated, “The negotiations and Agreement of 1954 did not involve at all the question of delimiting the boundary between the two countries.” A few months earlier, Chinese Premier Chou Enlai stated that the two sides had been able to settle all questions “ripe for settlement”. Then, the Five Principles were incorporated in the Preamble of the Agreement. The Report of the 1960 border talks says: “Mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity assumed clear and precise knowledge of the extent of each other’s territory. Two states with a common boundary could promise such respect for territorial integrity and mutual non-aggression only if they had a well-recognised boundary.” It was not the case; it is not the case 59 years later.
What can India do? One solution would be to postpone Premier Li Keqiang’s visit. However New Delhi will probably prefer to ‘engage’ China, in which case, one possibility would be to ‘fix’ the borders by re-opening several border passes. The reopening of the Demchok route in Ladakh would not only ‘pin’ the border in this area, but also allow Indian pilgrims to reach the Kailash-Mansarovar area in relatively comfortable conditions. Another border post which would make a difference, if re-opened, is the old trade route via the Karakoram pass. By building a border infrastructure, both sides would have to agree on a LAC, if not a proper border in the area; some gaps between the border posts may remain, but they could be tackled at a later stage. It’s true, though, that the ‘perceptional’ intrusions occurred mainly in the gaps. To fix a few border posts would, however, go a long way in solving the dispute. It will be a proof of China’s sincerity. Otherwise, there is not point in receiving Premier Li Keqiang in Delhi (especially before he visits Pakistan).
By Claude Arpi