The recent standoff with China should serve as a wake-up call.
Sino-Indian relations had remained frozen after the 1962 War till 1976 when diplomatic activity restarted. Though there have been a number of stand offs over the years since then, what exuded hope was the fact that the two sides had signed a number of agreements and confidence building measures (CBMs) in the military field while diplomatic activity between the two at the highest levels had continued as recently as 2019 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping met at Mamallapuram.
The question that arises is: Why has China suddenly tried to change the rules of the game and how should India deal with the changed narrative?
Though the two sides resumed designating ambassadors to each other in 1976 after a long break, the real breakthrough came with the late prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China in 1988.
The two sides agreed that pending resolution of the boundary dispute, they would maintain peace and tranquility along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), and make efforts to improve and develop bilateral relations. Since then, India and China have signed a number of agreements; namely:
September, 1993: Agreement on maintaining peace and tranquility along the LAC.
November, 1996: Agreement on CBMs in the military field along the LAC.
April, 2005: Agreement on political parameters and guiding principles for settlement of the boundary dispute.
January, 2012: Agreement on the establishment of a working mechanism for consultation and co-ordination on India-China border affairs.
October, 2013: Border Defence Cooperation Agreement.
In addition, during late prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s visit to China in June 2003, the Special Representatives (SRs) mechanism for resolution of the boundary dispute was also set up. Since then, the SRs have had 22 rounds of talks (the last one in December, 2019) but without getting any closer to a resolution of the boundary dispute.
Consequent to the Doklam stand off in 2017 which lasted for 73 days, there have been two informal summits between Prime Minister Modi and President Xi Jinping at Wuhan in 2018 and at Mamallapuram in 2019.
The Wuhan Summit was organised with great preparation and fanfare, and President Xi played a perfect host. There were great expectations from the summit and what came to be called the ‘Wuhan Spirit’. However, that kind of enthusiasm was missing from the Chinese side for the Mamallapuram Summit and there was not even a joint declaration.
There was a degree of uncertainty if President Xi would actually be coming, till about three days before the summit. In fact, the body language of President Xi indicated that he was just keeping a date having promised the same.
It was decided (at Mamallapuram) that the year 2020 would mark the 70th anniversary of the establishment of India-China diplomatic relations and the two countries would be organising 70 activities during 2020 to emphasise the historical connection between the two civilisations.
Instead, what do we have? A series of military stand offs starting from Sikkim to Ladakh culminating in the June 15 violent clash resulting in considerable casualties on both sides to mark the occasion.
Obviously, China has unilaterally changed the rules of the game. It is quite apparent that a new narrative is shaping up as far as Sino-Indian relations are concerned.
The genesis of the recent intrusions during April-May 2020 by the PLA can be traced back to the 1962 Sino-Indian War. China declared unilateral ceasefire on November 21, 1962 and announced that its forces would halt all further operations and commence withdrawal from occupied territories.
However, this withdrawal was confined to erstwhile NEFA (now Arunachal Pradesh) only. In the Western Sector (Ladakh), there was no withdrawal. The Chinese forces had advanced up to their “1960 Claim Line” and that became their Line of Actual Control in the Western Sector.
Their aim in 1962 in the Western Sector was to remove 43 Indian posts (out of 72) which they considered were across their Claim Line. However, there was one exception and that was in the Depsang Plain (southeast of Karakoram Pass) where they seemed to have overstepped their Claim Line and straightened the eastward bulge.
In 1962, the two major attacks that took place on October 18 morning were against the Red Top Hill held by 14 J&K Militia in the Daulat Beg Oldie Sector (Sub-sector North) and the Galwan Post held by 5 JAT in the Galwan River Valley. Thereafter, the attacking troops (the 4th Infantry Division of the PLA which had been brought from Xinjiang) moved further south for operations in the Indus Valley area (Demchok-Chang La) which began on October 26 and terminated on October 28.
There was a lull in fighting from October 29 to November 17, during which they made preparations for further operations which commenced in the Chushul sub-sector on November 18, with attacks on the Gurung Hill and Rezangla (south of Spangur Lake).
A look at Chinese thinking
It will be interesting to look at the Chinese thinking at this juncture, i.e. before launching the second phase of their operations on November 18, 1962. I reproduce below an extract from the telegraphic instructions issued by the Central Military Commission (CMC) to Xinjiang Military Command on November 14, 1962.
I quote from A History of Counter Attack War in Self Defence along Sino-Indian Border:
“While eliminating the [Indian] strongholds, do not fight with the Indian forces deployed in artillery bases and strongholds set up outside our territory by the Indian troops. If we do not attack and Indian forces attack us, in that case we will definitely launch a counter attack. Retaliate with short, fierce and sudden fire power, hit their airfield at Chushul; the shells may cross the border but personnel should not cross the border. While returning fire, it must be approved by GHQ.”
This clearly shows that the Chinese considered their 1960 Claim Line as the border and had no intention to overstep that line.
However, Indian troops withdrew all along the line, even from positions which were not even attacked as most of these were meant to show the Indian flag and were not sited tactically. Even Daulat Beg Oldie which was held by 14 J&K Militia and was neither attacked, nor contacted by the attacking troops, was abandoned.
The Gurung Hill Complex in the Chushul Sub-sector was held by two companies of 1/8 Gorkha Rifles and was attacked on November 18 along with the Rezangla Hill but could not be captured by the Chinese in spite of repeated attacks during the whole of November 18 and 19.
However, instead of reinforcing the Gurung Hill, the brigade commander decided to withdraw troops from Gurung Hill and all other such positions that were holding out during the night of November 19 and 20. As a result, the control of the whole of Kailash Range passed into Chinese hands and the Chushul airfield was rendered unusable as it now lay in no man’s land and was dominated by the Chinese on the eastern hills.
Though Chinese troops gave no indication for conducting further operations towards Leh, Indian troops were withdrawn almost 250 km for the defence of Leh. Thus contact was broken with the attacking troops all along the front, from Daulat Beg Oldie in the north to Demchok in the south. Such was the operational situation when the Chinese declared unilateral ceasefire effective from midnight of November 21, having achieved their aims in the Western as well as the Eastern Sectors.
Incidentally, India never accepted the ceasefire formally and has not done so till date. It remains a unilateral declaration.
So, the question arises, what could have been the motivation for Chinese movements in massive strength towards the LAC and in some cases even across it during April-May 2020? Of these, the intrusions in the Depsang Plain in the north and on the north bank of Pangong Tso appear to be substantial and seem to have shifted the LAC by quite some distance, even beyond their 1960 Claim Line.
How should we read the Chinese actions in trying to change the LAC unilaterally in contravention of all the existing protocols?
There are two plausible explanations. One, they had undoubtedly suffered a loss of face during the Doklam stand off in 2017 and could have planned this operation over a period of two years as a quid pro. While the world, including India were busy in dealing with COVID-19, they considered it a suitable opportunity to teach India another lesson.
The second reason could be the frequent stand offs at the LAC since 2013 resulting in physical pushing, shoving, stone throwing and so on which were getting uglier by the day. They may well have decided to assert their Claim Line to which they had advanced in 1962 and establish the same as the new LAC and a de-facto border, at least in the Western Sector.
This consideration may have got further accentuated by the ongoing development of infrastructure in the border areas by India which they have been objecting to from time to time. The operationalising of the road from Darbuk to Daulat Beg Oldie along the Shyok River may have added to the urgency as they may have felt their Aksai Chin Highway threatened.
Whatever be their motivation for this deliberate and planned aggressive manoeuvre which was totally unexpected, it is in violation and contravention of all the agreements and CBMs worked out so assiduously since 1993 and points towards a new direction in the Sino-Indian relations.
The turn of events of May-June 2020 has also disproved another view that had been gaining ground since globalisation had set in that intertwined economies could tide over other geopolitical issues between nations.
This has also been demonstrated in the case of US-China relations which seem to have moved from G-20 to a new kind of cold war setting in between them. It also holds true for Sino-Indian relations which were being increasingly show cased as a strategic partnership. We have been carrying out joint military exercises over the last decade and a half which seemed a little surreal; especially so, as in 22 rounds of the SR talks the two sides were not able to even define the LAC.
Since 2014, China during various interactions at the apex level has been stressing on the need for early resolution of the boundary dispute. President Xi had mentioned this for the first time in a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Modi on the sidelines of the BRICS Summit hosted by Brazil in July 2014.
This was repeated again during his visit to India in September 2014 in response to a point raised by Prime Minister Modi for early definition of the LAC. This was at variance with their earlier stand that the resolution of the boundary dispute could be left for the future generations. Obviously, there has been a change in the Chinese thinking since President Xi Jinping came to power.
So, China had been messaging repeatedly that they would like to resolve the boundary dispute at an early date, albeit on Chinese terms.
Our trade deficit with China has been rising from the beginning of this century and was around US $48.66 billion in the year 2019-20. It has not been possible to address this issue despite a number of meetings of the Joint Working Group, primarily because of the gross asymmetry in the two economies and Chinese intransigence. It has become a major sticking point in the bilateral relations.
The presence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and his followers in India, and the unsettled conditions in Tibet is yet another source of mistrust by the Chinese. To the above must be added the emerging nexus between China and Pakistan in the military field and the development of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir which by all standards is Indian territory under illegal occupation of Pakistan.
China, through CPEC projects hopes to become a third party in the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan. The latest development of the commencement of construction of Diamer-Basha Dam on the river Indus in Gilgit-Baltistan under CPEC is a serious development which poses a direct challenge to India’s core interests.
Under these conditions, it seems unrealistic to think and hope that India and China can be strategic partners. It is time that India got real in its view of the rising China and evolved a pragmatic and long term perspective for this vital relationship which affects national security to the core.
The way ahead
To start with, we need not be in a hurry to resolve the ongoing stand-off at the LAC; especially so if China is not prepared to restore the status quo ante in a realistic time frame as it prevailed in April 2020. We can dig in and make sure that PLA is not allowed to change the status quo unilaterally in any other sector of the LAC.
We can let the Chinese know of our perception of the LAC and end the differing perceptions. The Central Sector (Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand) requires urgent attention as that can also become a flash point. China claims approximately 2,000 square km of the territory in the Central Sector and that is under Indian control. We need to improve our infrastructure and defensive posture in the Central Sector so that China cannot create a Ladakh like situation.
There is an urgent need to fix responsibility for the northern border with China. Who is responsible to maintain the sanctity of the LAC, is it the Indian Army or the ITBP? If it is the responsibility of the Army which rightfully should be so, then the ITBP should be under Army’s operational control.
ITBP is a police force and is neither equipped, nor trained to conduct military operations in the face of the enemy. The present arrangement is ambiguous and needs to be set right urgently.
When it comes to trade relations, we need to remember that there is life without China also. It was there in the earlier times and it can be developed again. We may step back a little as far as economic ties are concerned. We value our relationship with Taiwan and can certainly give it a boost, especially in trade and technological fields. However, we must remember that Taiwan’s stand on the border dispute is no different from that of mainland China.
From 1947-49, India has failed itself in the sense that we failed to demarcate and secure the borders with Tibet when the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was nowhere in sight. We totally neglected the security of our northern borders.
The PRC emerged on October 1, 1949, and declared its intention to ‘liberate’ Tibet as early as January, 1950, soon after they had annexed Xinjiang. We failed Tibet and the Tibetans in their hour of need. Not only did we not intervene politically or militarily to preserve its independence, we did not even allow Tibet’s bid for independence to be raised in the UN Security Council due to a misplaced thinking on the part of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru that it would adversely affect his efforts to bring about a ceasefire in the Korean War between the Americans and the Chinese.
Not only that, we surrendered all the privileges in Tibet that we had inherited from the British while signing the Panchsheel Agreement in April, 1954, without even negotiating the border between India and China. The ink on this Agreement had not even dried that China made its first trans-border incursion in Barahoti in the Central Sector in June, 1954. The boundary dispute had begun.
It is a misperception that India is no match for China militarily.
Perhaps, it is the result of 1962 syndrome which still persists at the political and higher military levels. Keeping the 1962 happenings under wraps has further perpetuated such an impression. It can be stated unambiguously that the failure in 1962 was at the higher direction of war.
The Indian soldier was not found wanting in courage and steadfastness, and the units performed admirably, wherever led properly. However, their performance at the individual and unit level was subsumed in the bigger debacle for which we feel shy of introspection till date. Let us put that behind us. If there is a strong political resolve, a sound military strategy and professional leadership, the Indian soldiery will not be found wanting.
We misread the Chinese intentions in the events leading to 1962 and we have misread them again in 2020. Let us not do it again for the third time because that would be inexcusable. China has changed the rules of the game unilaterally and given a go by to all the agreements and protocols that have existed.
We need to wait and watch and should not be in a hurry to reach a modus vivendi which would be detrimental to our core national interests. There is a flurry of anti-Chinese feeling amongst the nations of the world for its handling of the coronavirus and its aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea. The challenge for our political and military leadership is to turn this to our advantage in Tibet and elsewhere.
Major General P.J.S. Sandhu (Retd) was the Chief of Staff of a Strike Corps and former deputy director and editor at the United Service Institution of India (USI). Between 2013-2015, he edited a USI study, 1962 – A View from the Other Side of the Hill.