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.
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.
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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