Few events in India have attracted as much attention in the Western media, including the US, UK, and members of the European Union, as the ongoing tensions, following the face-off between China and India, in Ladakh. China has been seeking to build an image of military invincibility, as it arbitrarily violates the boundaries of virtually all its maritime neighbors, including Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei.
China regularly acts like a bully with Vietnam, by coercively preventing the latter’s fishing and other vessels from operating even in Vietnamese waters, close to its shores. Beijing is evidently seeking to blot out memories of its army’s humiliating defeat in 1979 when it sought to invade Vietnam.
China has also rejected/violated the decision by an International Tribunal, holding that its arbitrary maritime territorial claims violated the International Laws of the Seas
The recent massing of Chinese forces and the resulting tensions across Ladakh have followed large-scale Chinese troop movements into strategic and sensitive areas in Ladakh. India has been naturally concerned with these moves.
Recent Chinese provocations in Depsang, Ladakh, would threaten India’s lines of communications in Ladakh, to its Daulat Beg Oldie airbase, and, thereafter, to the adjacent Karakoram Pass, which Pakistan claims, as its territory.
These moves have naturally raised serious concerns. Recent moves by China in Depsang have also compelled India to respond strongly. India has regarded its borders with China in Ladakh, astride the Aksai Chin, as vulnerable to attacks by China.
Moreover, these Chinese moves come at a time when India and the rest of the world are reeling under the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
It is in this context, that India has been working untiringly to improve road communications in Ladakh. China evidently felt that this summer was an ideal time to cut India to size. Its troop strength in Ladakh was significantly enhanced.
Beijing also evidently concluded that with a bitterly cold winter fast approaching, Indian forces in Ladakh would be cut off from all possibilities of getting essential supplies, especially as its coronavirus-infected economy would be under unbearable strain.
The means used by China to achieve its aims have primarily involved disturbing/cutting off-road communications to Northern Ladakh, so that India’s supplies to strategically crucial locations like the Daulat Beg Oldie Airport and the Karakoram Pass, could be blocked. This is, of course, in addition to Chinese moves to get control/dominance of strategic heights in the entire region, extending from Chushul to the Pangong and Galway basins. China has failed to achieve these objectives with Indian forces positioned on hilltops, in key locations.
Any Chinese presence at or near the Karakoram Pass would establish yet another link-up between Pakistan and China across the Himalayas. This will inevitably pose a threat to our lines of communication and to our forces in the Siachen Glacier area. Any such move will face substantive resistance from India. Better sense will hopefully prevail in China. India should ensure that any attempt by China to link up with Pakistan at the Karakoram Pass in Ladakh will be resisted and that any such move would cause China’s leaders to further diplomatic and military embarrassment. Pakistan regards the Karakoram Pass as located in its territory, and as the north-western terminal of the Line of Control in J&K.
The border agreements signed with China in 1993 and 1996 allude to the so-called “Line of Actual Control” (LAC). China uses these agreements to arbitrarily define new locations for the LAC.
These provisions have become an albatross around India’s neck, as they have been used by China for the past 17 years to undertake moves to arbitrarily define and expand their land boundaries, across both India’s western and eastern borders.
With our economy under severe pressure in the early 1990s, there was naturally an anxiety to maintain peace on our borders with China. We decided to sign agreements that defined our borders with China, as lying along the so-called LAC. China has, however, deliberately never defined or delineated this Line, which defines its land borders with India.
The 1993 and 1996 agreements laid the ground open for the Chinese to claim, on every conceivable occasion, that their intrusions into what is obviously Indian territory do not involve their transgressing into any Indian territory.
The “Line of Actual Control” alluded to in the 1993 and 1996 agreements lie, in China’s interpretation, within territory Beijing claims is Chinese territory.
Moreover, the Chinese never get tired of constantly demanding that India should respect whatever is their latest interpretation of where the LAC lies. Negotiations on the border issue in Chinese eyes have involved yielding by India, to arbitrary and unilateral Chinese claims on where exactly the LAC lies.
Prime Ministers Manmohan Singh and Wen Jia Bao concluded an agreement in 2005 on the “Political parameters and guiding principles for Settlement of the India-China Boundary question”. The two Prime Ministers agreed that: “The Boundary should be along with well-defined and easily identifiable natural geographical features, to be mutually agreed upon by the two sides”. It also held that in reaching a boundary settlement, the two sides “shall safeguard the interests of their settled populations in border areas.”.
China refuses to comprehensively define the location and contours of the LAC that it claims to respect. It uses its ambiguity on the Line of Control to its advantage, by laying arbitrary claims to territory, without any sound historical basis. This process is aptly described as “salami slicing.”
Instrument of China
The entire basis for our dealing with China on the border issue has been limited to the agreements between 1993 and 1996. The Chinese have left us running around in circles, by confining themselves to these two agreements. The Chinese aim is confined to ensuring peace and tranquillity along the border, without defining clearly, wherein China’s view, the border lies. This is something we have failed to achieve given China’s growing “Comprehensive National Power,” and territorial ambitions.
China’s territorial ambitions on its western borders with India combined with its growing political, diplomatic, economic, cultural, military, nuclear weapons, and missile ties with Pakistan, are a reality one has to deal with.
Islamabad is merely an instrument of China for the “low-cost containment” of India. Long-term ties with China based on peace and mutual equality, in these circumstances, still appear a very distant goal.
The writer is a former
High Commissioner to Pakistan