Even as hectic parleys are on in New Delhi and Beijing to take stock of the emerging situation in Ladakh’s Galwan river area, both countries seem to be cautious on comprehending and reacting to the ground reality. As information trickles down rather slowly, the People’s Liberation Army continues to reinforce the boots on the ground by increasing troop deployment along the Line of Actual Control in Galwan Valley. According to some reports, the Chinese deployment this time is believed to be greater than what was seen during the infamous Doklam standoff. Besides, if military experts are to be taken seriously, the Galwan Valley intrusion appears to be more than a mere standoff.
Galwan has a history
Galwan Valley was a theatre of war in 1962 as well. New Delhi, having learnt some lessons on border management the hard way, decided to fortify border roads and improve the living standards there. But the pace of work was slow and tardy. After 2014, the Narendra Modi government paid greater attention to the development of border infrastructure. The Darbuk-Shyok Daulat Beg Oldie road, which connects Leh to the Karakoram pass, running along the Galwan river was completed last year. Although this road is being touted as the immediate provocation for the troop build-up, the Chinese knew of this for over a decade. During the 18 years of its development, there is no record of China trying to stop the work, much less protest its construction. So, this may not be the only reason for Beijing’s sudden provocation.
Nevertheless, the present conflict zone is of great strategic importance to both New Delhi and Beijing, and hence, the troop build-up could increase and the eyeball-to-eyeball situation may prolong.
Meanwhile, after the initial bravado of releasing a new map showing the Indian territory at the Kalapani tri-junction as their own, Nepal Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli’s Communist government seems to be extricating itself out of yet another legacy of the British colonial past.
Border disputes a British legacy
At the end of the Second World War, the British began to see sunset as “the liquidation of Her Majesty’s Empire” started giving way to nation states with unsure borders. The political independence of nation states experienced de-colonisation of political power without decolonisation of minds and maps.
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The Venezuela-Guyana border dispute; the disagreement between Afghanistan and Pakistan over Durand Line; the unsettled issue of tri-junction at Kalapani; the Myanmar-Bangladesh quarrel over Rohingyas; the biggest-of-all Israel-Palestine legacy conflict; the Greece-Turkey disagreement over Cyprus; the territorial dispute between Malaysia and Philippines; the India-Pakistan post-Partition differences and the current standoff between India and China over the McMahon Line — the list is endless. They all can be traced to the burden of blood-stained British legacy, which continues to haunt the world at every flashpoint. Ironically, England too is not free from the sins of commission and omission that it played elsewhere in the world — evident from the oppressive weight of the legacy of Anglo-Irish conflict that runs through centuries.
Country after country in the region and elsewhere are saddled with maps that were truncated after over two centuries of colonial rule. Bitter wars were fought over territories. While geographies changed, bringing wars to an end, the conflicts continued. Sometimes, peace talks went against the victor and favoured the vanquished. Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee while commenting on the Simla Agreement had said, “maidaan me jeete, mez par hare (we won on the battlefield but lost on the negotiating table)”. Reckless lines drawn hastily by irresponsible officers of the withdrawing British Raj became permanent boundaries cast in stone.
Independent India began its ‘tryst with destiny’ in 1947 with a tragic Partition and randomly drawn McMahon Line as boundaries. There was no border with China in 1947 and until 1950 when China annexed Tibet, which was considered a political buffer between the two civilisations. Since then, the entire 3,488 km long India-China border remains disputed. The McMahon Line was drawn in 1914 to delineate the boundary between Tibet and then British India. According to British journalist and author Neville Maxwell, the British had used as many as 11 different boundary lines in the region, as their claims shifted with the ever-changing political situation.
Yet the legacy of the colonial past cannot be wished away by looking the other way. History can be rewritten, but not re-enacted. Borders were created to resolve conflicts, and not create newer ones. One way of solving the border dispute is to draw a new map in the diplomatic drawing rooms. In a democracy like India, it will require strong political will, sufficient numbers in Parliament and consensus among parties. It should be much easier for Chinese President Xi Jinping to exit from the past and determine China’s position in the emerging world order, if he is serious about it.
Trust deficit with China
A geographically contiguous Asia is politically divided and economically different. The urge for prosperity may divide it further even as the dream of Asian Century appears to be turning into a reality with the definite rise of China as a regional power contesting for a global role.
Trust deficit and security challenges have been among the major factors for the border disputes between India and China. But keeping it aside, both countries can give a new momentum to reinforce bilateral and regional cross-border cooperation. Regional economic integration can be a solution for both territorial disputes and irregular cross-border movements, blurring political differences and transforming the region into areas of economic and cultural rejuvenation.
The Chinese envoy in New Delhi Sun Weidong said, “We should never let differences overshadow our relations. We should resolve differences through communication. The two nations pose no threat to each other”. Meanwhile, the Central Military Commission (CMC) headed by Xi Jinping, which is at the apex of the command structure of the two-million strong PLA, has been ordered by the Secretary General of the Communist Party, to think about worst-case scenario, scale up training and battle preparedness, promptly and effectively deal with all sorts of complex situations and resolutely safeguard national sovereignty, security and development interests.
Xi Jinping’s order to the PLA can also be interpreted as a pointer to the post Covid-19 pandemic world order. Will the rest of the world, especially Asia and Africa, accept a hegemonic China with scant respect for democracy, rule of law and human rights, as the rule-maker of the world?
‘India and China have vital stake’
It would be relevant to recall the words of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh: “A multi-polar world is emerging but its contours are not yet clear. Protectionist sentiments in the West have increased and the global trading regime may become fragmented by regional arrangements among major countries. India and China have a vital stake in preserving an open, integrated and stable global trade regime even as we work together to foster regional economic integration”.
Axiomatically, global trends indicate increase in rivalry and perhaps the emergence of new cold war between China and its partners, attempting to retain and enlarge their influence in Indo-Pacific and beyond, and a coalition led by the US, its allies and those worried about China’s ‘not so peaceful’ rise.
New Delhi needs to wait and watch, but in the meanwhile, keep the powder dry.
The author is a member of the National Executive Committee of the BJP and former editor of Organiser. Views are personal.
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