The Chinese army is there to stay in Aksai Chin. This reality had become known to our leadership in the 1950s and so it is now — though admitting this fact will be seen as a mark of defeat — and hence the claims and counter-claims, even when the reports about China ramping up its military capabilities and infrastructure in Tibet continue to appear in the Indian media. The Chinese are past masters at giving assurances and then doing another thing on the ground. No wonder that our External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar had recently stated that “significantly, to date, we have yet to receive a credible explanation for the change in China’s stance or reasons for massing troops in border areas”. Furthermore, his comments at Vijayawada (as reported in the print media) indicated that not only had Chinese actions shown ‘disregard’ for the commitment to minimise troop levels, but also ‘a willingness to breach peace and tranquillity’.
The reason why China has resorted to this build-up, and would stay there as long as it takes, hasn’t been lost on the policy-makers at South Block. Thus, Jaishankar has said, “We know the reason why China amassed troops at the border and breached peace.”
The reasons lie in the pages of Sino-Indian history that show why an acceptable settlement is still a far cry, despite the Sino-Indian ‘agreements’ signed in 1993, 1996, 2005 and 2013. These did provide a clear direction, if there was a sincere desire to settle this long-standing issue. But in some ways, it is like the India-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir. Neither side can be seen to be giving in, with so much at stake for their political leadership. For China, there is Mao Zedong’s vision that saw Tibet as the palm of its right hand and Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh (earlier NEFA) as its five fingers that China has to ‘liberate’. For India, it meant accepting the Chinese claims — as suggested by China’s Zhou Enlai in 1959 and 1960 — which would lead to charges of ‘horse trading’, as Nehru had put it, since all the territory that China claimed, “whether Arunachal Pradesh in the east or Aksai Chin in the west, were Indian,” states Zorawar Daulet Singh in his recent book, Power Shift: India-China relations in a Multipolar World. For many years even after Nehru had passed away, Indian diplomats were loyally hanging on to his legacy. This stand in due course has become an Indian article of faith.
Thus, despite the much publicised meetings between the leaders of India and China — Prime Minister Narendra Modi and CPC Chairman Xi Jinping — who had first engaged in 2014, and then following the standoff over Doklam in 2017, over structured summits at Wuhan in 2018 and then at Mamallapuram, near Chennai, in 2019, there were major Chinese intrusions across the LAC in 2014 and then in 2020. One reason was that the directions to their respective militaries, to have better and more frequent communication and strengthen the existing confidence building measures (CBMs), so that the special representative (SR) could “seek a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable settlement to the border question”, were quite vague.
And so, there was room for (mis)interpretation leading to transgressions by troops on either side of the LAC, whenever the opportunity arose. But these were generally by patrols along the LAC or the McMahon Line, and were rarely entrenched intrusions, barring a few like those in 2013, in eastern Ladakh, before April 2020.
However, the absence of political drive to find a solution over the boundary disputes, especially after the 2013 Chinese intrusions in east Ladakh, and the 2017 Doklam stand-off, and a Chinese desire to position oneself at an advantage became more noticeable, with ‘nearly 75 per cent of the transgressions’ by Chinese troops taking place across the LAC, and only 20 per cent in India’s eastern front along Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. This makes it apparent that for the Chinese, the Aksai Chin area was ‘a valued piece of real estate’, and the Ladakh crisis could thus be explained as a ‘belated reassertion of China’s original claims over the area’.
What had brought matters to a head in 2020 — as China would’ve seen it — were several actions initiated by India in recent years. First, India’s effort to improve infrastructure — roads, bridges, tunnels and communication arteries — at various points along the Sino-Indian boundary. For years after the 1962 conflict, India hadn’t developed these for fear that better roads from the Himalayas onto the plains would aid an invading Chinese force to roll down! Then in July 2013, a decision was taken to raise a strike corps for the Indian Army in the eastern sector, with offensive (defence) capabilities to monitor China’s activities and have acclimatised Army units for rapid responses. But it was finally the Modi government’s decision to abrogate Article 370 of the Constitution — that gave J&K special status — and the creation of the Union Territory of Ladakh, and the call thereafter “to liberate 38,000 square kilometres of Aksai Chin” by no less than the Home Minister that contributed to China’s aggressive behaviour. These issues have been brought out in detail in essays in a recent book compiled by bureaucrat-turned-academic Shakti Sinha, One Mountain Two Tigers.
With talks leading nowhere, in early 2020, the Chinese army dramatically increased its presence in Aksai Chin, along the LAC as the snow melted, which India mistook as military exercises, even though there were substantially larger elements of tanks and artillery. Thereafter, Beijing made its intentions known. It was in no mood to pull back its army, and as it did in 1959-60. China then conveyed to New Delhi, that a solution to the latest boundary tensions could be found around the Chinese proposals of 1959. Is it time, therefore, for India to do a reality check?
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