Through its intrusions since May, China has taken the clock back to 7 November 1959. The difference being that instead of isolated posts/patrols facing each other, three-four divisions, including reserves, are locked in a confrontation along the same line. Let there be no doubt that the 1959 Claim Line is normal for all future negotiations and China is in no mood to give up its recent gains.
The four-and-a-half-month-long conflict along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and the five-point agreement signed in Moscow has opened the way to settle the larger boundary dispute between India and China. We are exactly in the same situation as in 1959. The Chinese offer then was to settle the issue in Ladakh as per the 1959 Claim Line and recognise the McMahon Line in the northeast. Through its actions since April 2020, the Chinese have already reached the 1959 Claim Line in Depsang and north of Pangong Tso. The only other area left is Demchok.
The seventh Corps Commander-level talks are scheduled on 12 October as agreed to in the 19th Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination (WMCC) on India-China border affairs. At the end of the meeting, the statement issued by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said that China has agreed “…to work towards early and complete disengagement of the troops along the LAC following the existing bilateral agreement and protocols, and fully restore peace and tranquillity”. The Chinese statement merely said it has agreed “to hold the seventh round of military-level talks at an early stage, urgently handle the remaining issues on the ground and jointly safeguard peace and tranquillity in the border areas.”
The difference in the agenda for the talks highlights the hardening approach of China. More so, when on 25 September, in reply to a query by Hindustan Times, China unequivocally reiterated, “China-India border LAC is obvious, that is the LAC on November 7, 1959. China announced it in the 1950s, and the international community, including India, is also clear about it. However, ever since this year, the Indian Army has continued to arrive and illegally cross the border, unilaterally expanding the scope of actual control. This is the source of tension on the border issues. The key to disengagement between the two armies is India’s withdrawal of all illegal cross-border personnel and equipment.”
On 29 September, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said, “China does not recognise the so-called Union Territory of Ladakh illegally established by India and opposes infrastructure construction in disputed border areas for military control purposes.”
It is crystal clear that in future talks, the Chinese approach will be to reiterate its ownership of territory up to the 1959 Claim Line and China will insist that disengagement/de-escalation is based accordingly.
I trace the history of the 1959 Claim Line, its strategic and tactical importance in various sectors and whether it can form the basis for a comprehensive settlement of the boundary dispute between India and China.
1959 Claim Line
The 1959 Claim Line had its origin in former Prime Minister Zhou Enlai’s letter to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru dated 7 November 1959, wherein he proposed: “the armed forces of China and India each withdraw 20 kilometres at once from the so-called McMahon Line in the east, and from the line up to which each side exercised actual control in the west.” This line was broadly described by the Chinese during the five rounds of talks between officials of India and China held in 1960.
This was the first time that the Chinese had formally stated their claims and approach towards negotiations. For a decade, both sides had been busy securing the frontier regions. India preempted the Chinese in the northeast, and by 1951, had secured the entire territory up to the McMohan Line, barring a few marginal areas, using the Assam Rifles. In Ladakh, the Chinese had preempted us, built the Tibet Xinjiang Road (G 219) and crept forward to provide depth to the same by securing major parts of Aksai Chin. Elsewhere, we managed to plant our flag using the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and the Intelligence Bureau.
At this juncture, our patrols/posts came face-to-face with the Chinese. On 25 August 1959 at Longju, in Lohit division, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) took a soldier from the Assam Rifles as a prisoner of war (POW). The first violent incident took place on 21 October at Kongka La in Ladakh, where nine CRPF personnel were killed, three wounded and seven taken as POW.
Zhou Enlai’s proposal was rejected by Nehru in his letter dated 16 November 1959: “We do not yet know with any precision where the frontier line lies according to the claims of the Chinese Government… An agreement about the observance of the status quo would, therefore, be meaningless as the facts concerning the status quo are themselves disputed.”
As a result of these incidents and high risk of more clashes, the Chinese finally stated their position during the 1960 talks, giving the latitude and longitude of 17 points of the 1959 Claim Line. These points are widely separated and thus subject to different interpretations with respect to areas in between. Also, during the 1960 talks, the Chinese often said that the coordinates were approximate. The ambiguity is most pronounced in the Depsang Plains and Demchok Sector.
It is pertinent to point out that during the 1962 War, the PLA did not at any point cross the 1959 Claim Line despite Indian troops having withdrawn nearly 100 km behind. In Ladakh, the PLA captured only those posts that had been established 10-20 km east of the current LAC in pursuit of the “forward policy” post-1959. In fact, the line again came into focus when China declared unilateral ceasefire on 19 November 1962: “Beginning from 21 November 1962, the Chinese frontier guards will cease fire along the entire Sino-Indian border. Beginning from 1 December 1962, the Chinese frontier guards will withdraw to positions 20 kilometres (12 miles) behind the line of actual control which existed between China and India on 7 November 1959.”
Despite having been routed in the war, Nehru rejected the conditional unilateral ceasefire. In his letter dated 1 December 1962, Nehru wrote: “What you call ‘the line of actual control as on November 7, 1959’ in the western sector was only a series of isolated military posts. You are aware that in November 1959 there were no Chinese posts of any kind either at Qiziljilga, Shinglung, Dehra, Samzangling or any areas to the west of these locations nor did the Chinese have any posts to the south or west of Spanggur. Despite this, ‘the line of actual control as on November 7, 1959’, as your Government now claim in Ladakh, is along the line of control established by your forces after the massive attacks mounted since 20th October, 1962. This is a definite attempt to retain under cover of preliminary ceasefire arrangements, physical possession over the area which China claims and to secure which the massive attack since 20th October, 1962, was mounted by your forces. This we cannot agree to.”
Despite having generally adhered to all agreements post-1993 to maintain peace and tranquility along the LAC, the Chinese remained ambiguous about which LAC they were referring to. The “areas of differing perceptions” were part of this facade. Their focus remained on the 1959 Claim Line.
Strategic, tactical importance of 1959 Claim Line
The 1959 Claim Line is a masterpiece of terrain evaluation. Strategically, it is aligned to protect Aksai Chin and other areas seized by China in the 1950s. Tactically, it allows each sector to be isolated and at the risk of defeat in detail.
The rough alignment of the line is as per the marking on Google Earth/Maps. In the Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) Sector, in the northern half, the 1993 LAC is aligned with the 1959 Claim Line. In the southern half, after intruding 18-29 km up to Bottle Neck in May 2020, the 1959 Claim Line has been reached. The DBO airfield is only 10 km from and the distance to our strategic road varies between 7-10 km from the Claim Line. The entire DBO Sector can be cut off by an offensive through Raki Nala, Jivan Nala and to the west from Bottle Neck. Thus, the DBO Sector remains our vulnerability and we are in no position to pose any threat to Aksai Chin.
In the Galwan Valley, the Claim Line is only 5 km from our strategic road, making it vulnerable. It also denies us another access to Aksai Chin. Despite the clashes there in May, the Claim Line coincides with the LAC. The PLA intrusion was to gain tactical advantage. South of the Galwan River, the Claim Line coincides with the LAC.
In Kugrang River-Changlung Nala, the Claim Line coincides with the LAC and denies us the southern access to the Galwan River Valley and Aksai Chin. In Kongka La Sector, the alignment makes the salient liable to be cut off at Gogra, Hot Springs and Tsogstsalu. It also denies the southern approach to Aksai Chin. However, the 1993 LAC coincides with the Claim Line and the PLA intrusions since May are to gain tactical advantage.
North of Pangong Tso, as per China’s own version given during the 1960 talks, the Claim Line enters the lake at Finger 8. However, the PLA intruded 8 km west to Finger 4. This has been done to deny us an approach along the north bank of Pangong Tso and also to facilitate a PLA offensive towards Phobrang to cut off the entire area north of Pangong Tso, including Kongka La-Kugrang-Hot Springs-Gogra-Marsimik La-Ane La.
In the Chushul Sector, the Claim Line coincides with the 1993 LAC allowing us to be in a dominant position by holding the Kailash Range. This is one tactical flaw in the 1959 Claim Line, which allows us to be in a position of advantage. Overall, the alignment, which is 10-15 km west of the 1947 International Border (IB), provides depth to Rudok through which the G 219 road passes.
Further south and southeast, the alignment is along the Kailash Range north of Indus and then from west of Fukche, it runs along the Indus River and turns south along the eastern watershed of Koyul River. In this sector, the LAC lies 35 km east at Demchok. The aim of the alignment was to give depth to Ngari, 50 km from Demchok, through which the G 219 passes, and also to deny approaches to Rudok via Chang La. Since 1962, the Chinese have refrained from intruding into the Indus Valley, probably due to the habitation at Demchok. However, they have salami-sliced some areas south of Demchok near Charding La. In event of any escalation, this sector could be a flashpoint.
Can 1959 Claim Line be the basis of a comprehensive agreement?
The Chinese have put their cards on the table. A strong signal has been sent that acceptance of the 1959 Claim Line will not only pave the way for disengagement/de-escalation but also for a comprehensive boundary agreement.
We are in no position to take back Aksai Chin and other areas in Chinese occupation in the foreseeable future. If negotiations lead towards formal demarcation of the border with a wide demilitarised zone, it may pave the way for converting it into International Border at a later date. The exact alignment of the border will be contingent on diplomatic skills and not necessarily the 1959 Claim Line per se.
The mistrust of the Chinese and the public sentiment in India are likely to be the main impediments. In China’s defence, it can be said that in war and peace, it has generally adhered to the 1959 Claim Line. The only notable violation has been north of Pangong Tso, intrusions in Hot Springs-Gogra-Kugrang and Galwan Valley being temporary tactical actions.
It is time for the political leadership to take charge. China has changed the goalposts and negotiations with focus on the 1959 Claim Line, and the larger boundary issue cannot be left to the Generals. The hallmark of statesmen is not to exploit emotions through rhetoric but use their popularity to convince the public about unpalatable strategic decisions. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has both — popularity and political skill. Will he bite the bullet?
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.