File photo of PM Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping | Graham Crouch/Bloomberg
File photo of PM Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping | Graham Crouch/Bloomberg
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Indian and Chinese military commanders met for another round of talks at the Chushul-Moldo point on the Chinese side of the Line of Actual Control Monday, joined for the first time by the Indian diplomat who heads the China desk in the ministry of external affairs, Naveen Srivastava – and echoing the presence of a political commissar who has always been present in the Chinese delegation. The talks went on for 15 hours.

Srivastava has hardly had any time to acclimatise – Chushul is located at 13,000 feet – but that is not India’s biggest worry right now. As both India and China dig in, add additional strength and get ready for the long haul, the only positive aspect of this unhappy five-month-long intrusion by Chinese PLA troops is that both sides are still talking.

So what are the options before India and China as they head into winter? As I see it, there are four.

First, China sees sense, disengages, draws down and returns to status quo ante. In return, India could reward it with a hefty contract or two.

A second option is a limited border conflict between the two – a hot, shooting war. But what if the rest of the world intervenes? Considering China is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, other permanent members could come to India’s aid, thereby expanding the theatre of war beyond Ladakh.

The third option is to accept transgressions the other side has committed and accept the new status quo. While the Chinese have occupied large swathes of territories inside Ladakh, Indian troops have climbed the Kailash range, which puts them on the commanding heights overlooking several Chinese positions below.

Certainly, the game has changed. As of 29-30 August Indian troops have disrupted the status quo and the Chinese don’t like it. And that’s what the ongoing talks in already freezing Chushul-Moldo are all about.

There’s a fourth option – the meeting of heads of state and government of the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) — as well as the BRICS summit — expected to be held in St Petersburg in November. Both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping should be present in the video call. But if the Ladakh crisis isn’t resolved by then, Modi could say he won’t participate in both summits, delivering a body blow to Russia’s prestige as the host as well as to China’s reputation which aims to ensure stability in this part of the world.

Certainly, the Chinese won’t want to be perceived to be an aggressor, especially in the SCO. Modi’s absence would be a diplomatic slap in the face of a country trying to lead others.

This leaf has been taken out before. Both in 2015, when the Chinese PLA intruded into Chumar in Ladakh during Xi’s visit to India, the Indian side repeated one sentence, again and again: You must return to status quo ante, otherwise all the fruits of the Chinese president’s visit will be wasted.

The Chinese, very reluctantly, did.

In August 2017 as well, one key reason for China’s withdrawal from its eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with Indian troops on the Doklam plateau in Bhutan was the coming BRICS conference in Xiamen, China. The fear of losing face with other nations as you sipped Chinese green tea, elbow to elbow, was too much even for Xi to take.

Remember, though, the Chinese never returned to status quo ante in Bhutan. They withdrew their bulldozers from the road they were building and Indian troops pulled back; but they have since stacked the area with permanent buildings and armaments.


Also read: LAC unlikely to return to pre-2020 state. India must swallow bitter pill, settle with China


An old trick

This refusal to return to status quo ante is an old trick the Chinese have perfected well in the decades since 1962. The trick involves a point-blank refusal to exchange maps about perceived territorial differences — meaning, disputed territories will remain undemarcated. It then involves intruding into undemarcated territories where troops patrols are few and far between – and occupying them, like PLA troops have done in Ladakh.

In all the years since the peace and tranquillity agreement was signed by then prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao in 1993 in Beijing – when the “disputed border” was changed to the “Line of Actual Control” because the Chinese threw a tantrum about refusing to accept the McMahon Line in the east that the “colonialist powers, the British” had left behind – the Chinese have refused to exchange maps on the Western sector, where the current crisis is ongoing, or in the Eastern sector.

During Rao’s trip, it was agreed that both sides would “clarify and confirm” the LAC, but nothing happened. In 1996, when Chinese president Jiang Zemin came to India, further confidence building measures (CBMs) were established, but no exchange of maps still took place. In 2003, when PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee went to Beijing and the mechanism of the Special Representatives to go into the border dispute was set up, the first logical step would have been to exchange maps – nothing of the sort.

Instead, on the day the foreign ministers of India and China met in Moscow this 10 September, The Global Times, the widely perceived mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, said :

“This time everything should be put on the table. If India wants peace, China and India should uphold the LAC of November 7, 1959. If India wants war, China will oblige. Let’s see which country can outlast the other.”

But the question is, what is the 1959 claim line? The Chinese proclaim that Premier Zhou en-Lai told Jawaharlal Nehru about it in a letter he wrote to the Indian PM in 1959 – but the fact of the matter is that Zhou forgot to attach a map. Much later in December 1962, after their brief and bitter conflict, at the Colombo Powers conference organised by then Ceylon PM Sirimavo Bandaranaike, a claim map of 1959 – not to scale – was attached.

In Ladakh, it is not clear whether the Chinese have occupied territories up to their 1959 claim line or not – there is no public confirmation or denial on this point.


Also read: Linking LAC peace with good relations shows India still doesn’t get China


Transgressions abound

But what is true is that India also has a history of accepting de facto possession of territory by China, because eviction would be far more traumatic. The Sumdorong Chu conflict of 1986-87 is the best known example – when then PM Rajiv Gandhi’s irrepressible army chief Gen. K. Sundarji mounted ‘Operation Falcon’ and ordered the airlift of a mountain brigade to counter Chinese moves of taking the Thag La ridge inside the LAC.

The brigade landed on the Larong La-Hathung La-Sulu La ridge line and took charge – which meant that it overlooked the Sumdorong Chu and the Namka Chu valleys, the last also a site of a bloody battle in 1962 — and controlled any Chinese movement below. But the Indian troops were still south of Thag La and there the Chinese remain till today. When Rajiv Gandhi went to Beijing in 1988, he wasn’t able to persuade them to withdraw from Thag La.

Other transgressions abound both in the Western and Eastern sectors. In 1998, around the time of India’s nuclear tests, the Chinese began to patrol the Pangong Tso, site of the current standoff, in powerful boats, according to Pravin Sawhney & Ghazala Wahab’s book, Dragon on our Doorstep.

One year later, they constructed a motorable gravel track from Spanggur on the Chinese side of the LAC to southern Pangong Tso, indicating to local Indian commanders that the LAC actually ran 6 km inside Indian territory. They upgraded infrastructure in Rechin La, Siri Jap and Demchok – all spots in the current confrontation.

In the Eastern sector too in west Arunachal Pradesh, in 1999, the Chinese pushed in both graziers and soldiers in Chantze, Asaphila and Dichu areas. They still hold ground in Asaphila and Maja areas in the state.

Compared to Ladakh, all these transgressions are relatively minor, but they exist because India has not punished the Chinese for nibbling its territory in small, but relentless bites.

As for the Modi government, which doesn’t even formally acknowledge the transgression, next steps are even more difficult. Perhaps he is guided these days by Deng Xiaoping’s saying, “It doesn’t matter when the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.”

The goal is to get the Chinese to return to its own side of the LAC. For the time being, nothing else matters.

Views are personal.

This article has been updated to reflect a correction. It was Chinese president Jiang Zemin, and not Hu Jintao, who had visited India in 1996. The error is regretted.

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23 Comments Share Your Views

23 COMMENTS

  1. Chengez K. Very funny ! Express strong hate for August 5, 2019, abrogation of article 370, PM Modi, CDA Rawat, political generals. China also faced two front war, at one end India, other end USA and their alliances. Daily reports from last 4-5 months on Global Times (mouthpiece of CPC) indicates Chinese weakness.

  2. Both Mao and Deng were too subtle for our political class to understand and get the measure of. I don’t know about Xi but time will tell.

    In general we Indians do not understand the Oriental mind and culture well enough. The Himalayan boundary has prevented any interaction between the two cultures over millenia.

  3. It would appear that the final communique issued post the last talks overttakes all that has been written here. Who won that round ? any assessment ?
    Absence at any large group meet leaves on no room for assessment of the views of the other members on issues of concern to you, also leaves the stage open for broadcast of views not seemingly correct and as one isnt present, there exists no route to respond and counter such arguments.
    Better sense will prevail as all the options get weighed – and the need to mould domestic audiences to reality would help.

  4. Modi doesn’t have to do anything, let the dragon fall by its weight and fire in October plenary meeting.

    Keep the temp on ground

    Delay talks

    No need to rush to a settlement

    Start persistence on mcmohan line

    Prepare for winter

    Think offensively on occupying Tibet

    Just before the start of plenary do what he did in his summit visit to India

    At the end of the plenary he will be asked to step down from being commander of cmc and can be namesake president

  5. Jyothi the Knowledgeable, Could you please put out the maps of occupied territory in your next post. I am really getting tired of your claims that China occupies a lot of Territory in Laddak… How much is it? 900Sq Km as some folks claim? What is it? Come on!!!!! I dare you!!!!

  6. Jyothi, your recommendations are contradicted by yourself. We know the Chinese will go back on their words. Why negotiate. The only way is to work on our economy. For now let the status quo stand. Rid ourselves of Chinese dependency completely. Brainwash our Children too about the mistrust of Chinese. The story engrained. Once we build our economy and rid our Chinese Dependence, we can then have a conversation may be… if not take the TERRITORY BACK!!! There is no shelf life on these things…. The bully always gets what he wants!!!!

    • ‘The only way is to work on our economy. For now let the status quo stand. Rid ourselves of Chinese dependency completely.’

      Modi collapsed the economy with demonetisation, and mishandling of Covid. The economy is not important for him, Hindutva is more important for him and Hindus.

      ‘Brainwash our Children too about the mistrust of Chinese.’

      The BJP is focussed on brainwashing Hindus – against Indian Muslims. They are very successful. If you brainwash against Chinese, all that will happen is a Hindu in Bangalore will assault an Indian from NE, and they will ask to be part of China.

  7. LOL! ROFL! LMAO! You expect ppl to pay for such crap. This Gupta guy has made The Print digital version of the other crap he used to head The Indian Express.

  8. Never in the history of warfare has ever any occupied land been returned on account of embarrassment………….neither will China. It is sad to see that there is no honest self reflection in India.The truth is Modi & his political generals went ahead with Aug 5 Kashmir madness by only focusing on Pakistan……….It was absolute lack of strategic understanding of how China can react to unilateral changes in the disputed territory……..It seems Modi was thoroughly intoxicated by General Rawat two front war fool hardy assessment which has landed India into the present geo-strategic quagmire !!!

    • Correct. Modi is a Hindu Hitler dreaming of Hindu hegemony like Hitler dreamed of European and world hegemony. The only difference is Hitler managed to take over Europe for a few years, before he was beaten. Here, our Hindu Hitler has lost land even before a battle ! And he dares not open his mouth !

      And his supporters give advice like ‘Modi has aces to serve, by boycotting BRICS’ !

      The reality is with failing economy, Covid, China, and the BJP’s penchant for fighting Indian Muslims, India is crumbling.

  9. Unfortunately , the efforts are not helping , for finishing of , the stand off , between two heavy weights, in South Asia. If this conflict keeps lingering ; it can be a real dangerous scenario in South Asia . Which will equally be felt , by the countries located around.
    Why can’t we handle the conflicts with ; justice & wisdom ? People of this southern part of Asia may think over.

  10. Chinese have blamed India, and called it aggressor from the vert outset. Options one and two are out of question. No country would get involved in a shooting war with China . No country has a stake in the peace of Indian land that China occupies in Ladakh. The most likely scenario is option three. After having done what they have done, and mobilising on such a big scale in Ladakh, it should be clear that the Chinese intend to stay where they are now. As far as option four, even if Modi stays away from SCO and/or BRICS summits, that wouldn’t have much impact on anything. A better option would be for Modi to call Xi, and talk to him! There is lot of wishful thinking on your part.

  11. I am not sure this approach is looking at the current situation comprehensively. India needs to represent actively and face China in multinational forum and convey to China to work on pragmatic solutions. The effort should geared towards defusing the situation not worsening it and simultaneously do their own thing in capturing strategic positions around the LAC. Representation in these forum will display maturity as a national and keep allies in close proximity. We should not remove our eyes on the UNSC seat so we should be in the multilateral forums. Talks and Takeovers can go hand to hand,

  12. Independent of the Ladakh crisis, India might wish to review the utility of its membership of BRICS and SCO. The Commonwealth again is a moth eaten relic. The UN and SAARC are good enough. G 20, of course. Purely in terms of time management, annual summits with Russia and Japan seem an avoidable luxury. People are observing how far apart India and China had drifted, despite eighteen summits in six years.

    • India is at odds with SAARC members aswell, India played spoiler because of Pakistan, its killed off. Disengaging with SCO will be a massive mistake, the bloc will progress together without India, the only losers will be India.

      • India is an quandary due to false Hindu pride. China invited India to join the CPEC project, but India declined. At the same time, India knows it is going to lose out.

        By acting for the US against Iranian oil, it looks like India is going to lose out on Iran’s Chabbar port project, and they are going to hand it to China.

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