Even though Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Ladakh, and encouragement to our troops on the frontlines – at the LAC- has made it clear that this standoff with China isn’t just another military to military face-off, but a watershed in Sino-Indian relations, questions still abound on ‘how long would this standoff last?’ The short answer is that the Chinese are there to stay! It would do us all well to learn from history. China’s presence on Aksai Chin- for the past seventy years – has been known to us all. This has its roots in China’s desire to control Aksai Chin, for three reasons. First, is the road link from Kashgar (in Sinkiang) to Lhasa (in Tibet), in the two distant but troubled regions of China. Second, is the waters and lakes of this region, that China needs for its people there, whose other sources have been contaminated due to Chinese nuclear tests in Lop Nor. Third, is the vast mineral resources there, like Uranium, that were first excavated by the Soviets, who used it for making their Atom bomb, until Stalin handed the region over to Mao, to win him into their anti-US alliance. Chinese troops thus moved into the Aksai region in the 1950s – when it was unoccupied – and have stayed since then. Pandit Nehru had made it known to the army that India’s only threat came from Pakistan. China, he believed, could be handled with diplomacy. This was the belief in South Block until May this year. Only the recent clashes in the Galwan region have woken up India’s establishment to the limits of Indian diplomacy.
Even after China’s occupation of Tibet, in the early 1950s, Pandit Nehru and his team of loyalists in New Delhi had refused to accept China’s growing territorial threat to India. In fact, on 29 April 1954, the Indian government had signed an (eight-year agreement on) Agreement on Trade and Intercourse with the Tibet Region of China and India. The very title of this agreement formally declares that Tibet was a part of China. This agreement also contained the ‘five principles of peaceful co-existence’ (Panch Sheel, as it later came to be known). But with India also publishing a map in 1954, that showed Aksai Chin as part of India, China was peeved, and it eventually chose to ignore India’s efforts to build bonds, even though, Pandit Nehru told the Indian Parliament on 4th May 1959, that India’s “policy towards China remained unchanged and it would continue to support China’s entry into the United Nations.” Furthermore, on 1st July 1959, Panditji declared that New Delhi would not recognize the Dalai Lama as the head of a Tibetan government and that Tibet was a part of China. But all this wasn’t enough for China. They wanted more territory, come what may.
From October 1958, differing Sino-Indian claims on the boundary alignment on the Himalayas had become a matter of public concern in India, with the news, that China had built a 180-kilometre long highway connecting Xinjiang (then Sinkiang) to Tibet via Aksai Chin- that historically was a part of Ladakh- which India regarded as its own. India’s claims were based on the boundaries suggested at the Simla Convention of 1913-14. This was signed only between the British government in India and the Tibetan government. The Chinese representative at the long drawn out conference had only initialled few maps, awaiting clearance from Peking, which never came. This final agreement defines the boundaries of Tibet with India, but only from east of Bhutan and onto Burma (now Myanmar). This came to be known as the McMahon Line. And though Nehru had asserted in Parliament – to loud cheers- that ‘the McMahon Line is our boundary, map or no map… (and) we will not allow anybody to cross the boundary”, the Chinese regime of Mao Tse Tung refused to accept any maps or India’s claims.
Moreover, as the question about where the boundary ran in Aksai Chin, was unresolved, it set the stage for a bigger confrontation, that was to follow in 1962. Under pressure at home, Pandit Nehru became increasingly assertive about India’s claims. And though Nehru gave reassurances to China that he regarded Tibet as a part of China, it didn’t quite help resolve the tension. Soon as the correspondence between India and China became acrimonious, it led to battle lines soon being drawn over the conflicting boundary claims. Shijie Zhishi, a popular Chinese publication went on to assert (on 20th September 1959) that “the McMahon Line was ‘íllegal’ and that the Çhinese people will never accept it”. One major cause of concern to the Chinese leadership was the increasing footprint of the United States in the region, with the CIA becoming a key player – with the help of some officials in the Indian establishment – in training, arming and supporting the Tibetan resistance. This was to annoy the Chinese considerably then, as does the current growing closeness between the US and India.
Finally, let us remain alert to China’s territorial creep northwards of the Galwan valley via the Depsang plains onto the Karakoram pass. This is to open the route to the flagship project of President Xi Jinping, the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. If China has control over Galwan Valley, the Depsang plains (north of Leh) will greatly shorten the route taken by the Chinese – by less than 1800 kilometres through very rough terrain – to link up with the Shaksgam valley, that China first grabbed and then made Pakistan ‘temporarily’ gift it to Beijing! This valley, though inhospitable, has the largest collection of glaciers (over 25o to be precise), that China regards a source of water to further its agenda of world domination. China needs an abundance of water to manufacture microchips and silicon wafers require lots of water and it is the waters of Ladakh and Kashmir that China wants and eyed since the 1950s.
(The writer is a Consulting Editor with the Times TV network.)
The writer is a retired army officer and columnist