India-China Joint Statement Is Uncannily Similar to a Treaty Signed 66 Years Ago

Not only are the sentiments expressed in both the covenants analogous, but the Panchsheely Treaty of 1954 soon burgeoned into conflict.

The joint statement issued by India and China in Moscow last week enumerating five points to try and ease tensions along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh, bears an uncanny similarity to the Panchsheel Treaty the rival neighbours agreed in 1954, ahead of the border war that erupted eight years later in 1962.

After an extended meeting on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), Indian foreign ministers S. Jaishankar and Wang Yi, his Chinese counterpart, agreed to prevent ‘differences from becoming disputes’, continue military dialogue, ease bilateral tensions and abide by all existing pacts and agreements on boundary affairs. The two ministers also decided to continue talking via the respective special representatives (SRs) on ‘border issues’ and to forge new confidence building measures (CBMs), once the border tensions subsided.

The Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence catalogued in the Panchsheel Treaty signed in Peking in April 1954 included mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, mutual non-aggression, mutual non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful co-existence.

Is there a similarity between the September 10 joint statement and the Agreement that dominated Sino-Indian ties 66 years earlier, but burgeoned soon into conflict?

Also Read: In Lok Sabha, Rajnath Paints Unclear Picture of Ladakh; Key Questions on China Stand-Off Remain

Analogous covenants

The sentiments expressed in both the covenants are analogous. The only ironic difference is that the 1962 war followed the Panchsheel Agreement on which China eventually and duplicitously reneged, while Jaishankar’s joint statement with Wang succeeded escalating military tension along the LAC since early May, despite a slew of previously agreed CBM protocols agreed over nearly three decades.

The former clearly led to the four-week-long war that ended on November 21, 1962, in which 1,383 Indian soldiers died, 1,047 were injured, 1, 696 were declared missing and 3,968 taken prisoners of war by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The latter standoff, nearly six decades later has, so far resulted in 20 Indian Army soldiers, including a colonel-level officer, dying in a clash in mid-June with the PLA in the Galwan region along the LAC, alongside an undeclared number of Chinese soldiers. It has also over the past week led to shots being fired by the respective armies along the LAC, albeit in the air, for the first time in 45 years.

“China is quite used to treating India as a nation which pays its (annual) subsidy by yielding territory,” declared military analyst Lieutenant General P.K. Kamath (retd) on social media. By stating that we do not want war, declared the former commandant of the Army War College in Mhow in Madhya Pradesh, India has accepted the Chinese intrusion into the Depsang (Plains) and enabled them (PLA) to consolidate their positions. Gen Kamath tellingly added that even the concept of the LAC has not been mentioned in the conciliatory Jaishankar-Weng joint statement, and that now India has seemingly accepted the alternate nomenclature of ‘border areas’.

Also Read: From ‘LAC’ to ‘Border Areas’, the Joint Statement Indicates What India Has Lost to China

In 1954 too, the present LAC was nebulously defined as the Customary and Administrative Line between Colonial India and Tibet, which Peking had occupied four years earlier in 1950, thereby making China India’s immediate neighbour. But in 1993, India agreed to formalise the LAC via the bilateral Agreement to Maintain Peace and Tranquillity, that was further bolstered thereafter by a raft of pacts to sustain and manage without conflict, a state of affairs that today has become extraneous.

China’s 1960 claim line in Ladakh is marked in yellow, the LAC at Pangong Tso in pink. As can be seen, Thakung, the site of the latest standoff, is inside the LAC but within the 1960 Chinese claim line. Map: The Wire

“The joint statement in Moscow last week, much like the Panchsheel Agreement, and numerous other bilateral pacts since, aimed at ensuing peace and tranquillity along the LAC, are all Beijing-driven as have been the talks between the respective SR’s,” said a senior security official, declining to be named. It’s really a case of India continually proposing and China persistently disposing initiatives with regard to firmly delineating LAC, as it tactically suited Beijing to keep the border issue active as a strategic lever for decades in order to unnerve Delhi and keep it perennially insecure, he added.

Also Read: India-China Standoff Has Made the LAC ‘Infructuous’, With ‘New Normal’ Emerging

Retired senior army officers familiar with the LAC region, and who had dealt with the PLA on countless occasions in border meetings, said that in their interactions the Chinese revealed no desire to definitively settle the border issue, that remains one of the world’s longest-running frontier disputes. “They (the PLA officers) always danced around the question in our limited interaction with them,” said a former two-star officer, adding that India’s current demand to restore the military status quo ante that prevailed along the disputed border in April was merely ‘illusionary’

Continue to keep their guard up

Expectedly, most senior Indian military planners and security officials are also skeptical about the Jaishankar-Wang joint statement and continue to keep their guard up along the LAC, prepared for all and any eventuality. Last month, the Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat had declared that all options, including war with China, were on the table, but shorn of bluster and braggadocio, the reality is that most Indian soldiers and leaders are relieved that talks between the two sides are continuing and conflict, at least for now, has been allayed. The reality, however, is that China is employing the tactic of talks to perpetuate more talks whilst it fortifies its military position.

Army trucks move towards Ladakh amid LAC border tension, at Manali-Leh highway in Kullu, July 31, 2020. Photo: PTI

A meeting between the Indian Army and PLA corps commanders along the LAC – the sixth since June –is imminent, though few in Delhi expect anything significant to emerge from it, except more obfuscation from China’s side. Security sources said it now appeared that through its sustained aggression and assertive military posture working to achieve its ‘paused’ plans of 1962, China had militarily spawned a ‘new normal’ along the former LAC. Consequently, India now faced a new fait accompli with regard to new territorial alignments created by the PLA, which Delhi would eventually have little choice but to accept, as its military, economic, diplomatic or political leverage with China was nought.

Hence, like after 1962, all negotiations factored in 38,000 sq km of Aksai China as belonging to China, future talks to restore peace and some semblance of normalcy between the two nuclear-armed rivals, could well compel India into accepting the as yet undefined territorial deficit. Domestically, this could be politically justified by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the grounds that the LAC was undefined, mired by rival claim lines, grey zones and differing perceptions. Hence, China seizing territory India perceived as its own was no loss for Delhi.

Or as the French say: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose or the more things change, the more they remain the same.