Much has already been written about the boundary tension between India and China in the Galwan Valley of Ladakh following the unfortunate freehand clashes there on June 15 between troops of the two countries leaving casualties on both sides. India lost 20 soldiers but China has not confirmed the number or nature of their casualties yet. Thereafter, this cold barren valley, previously little heard of outside of Ladakh, has now become a household name in India, evoking tremendous sentiments and bitterness. The tension, as we are witnessing, is refusing to deescalate with India taking the drastic but understandable retaliation of banning 59 Chinese mobile applications which till the ban were reportedly doing very good business in India. The Chinese have not made any tit-for-tat reaction, except they continue not to pull back their troops from the disputed site and instead seems to have fortified their positions further in the area as several much-publicised recent satellite pictures indicated. In India decibels are high and a great section of the media, in particular TV anchors, as well as a section of so called strategic thinkers, are literally calling for war and to snatch back Aksai Chin and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir etc., without even considering the thought that wars are not always won, and that wars mean misery and destruction for both victors and vanquished alike, though the vanquished will have to also bear the burden humiliation of defeat over and above all the losses. We do not have the opportunity to read much of the Chinese media, first because English language media are much fewer in the country than in India, but from the little informaton that come through on online editions of newspapers like Global Times – the Chinese Communist Party, CCP, mouthpiece – and some more Hong Kong based newspapers like South China Morning Post and Asia Times, the clamour over the border clashes seems much more low key, if not cold in China. No flashing around of new weapons acquired, no flashy pictures of troop mobilisation either. What does come across is a seeming resolve of the Chinese not to budge grounds. Indeed, the Chinese response so far does uncannily evoke the sense of the age-old warning to be wary of the dog which does not bark. Or, the same caution reflected in the saying: “still water runs deep.”
Just as these sterile and frozen, though captivating landscapes are now back in focus because of geopolitics, it was equally so once during the colonial times when the Great Game was unfolding between to empires – British and Russian. Besides the traditional rivalry between India and China as two powers of Asia, several scholars specialised in strategic affairs have been informing us of the global dimensions of the friction between the two, most specifically a growing confrontational rivalry between China and US, and China’s perception that India is now being swept into the US axis. There have also been other reasons forwarded, including what many speculate as CCP’s insecurity resulting from disenchantment of the Chinese public at its ways. There is also the belief that the Chinese people suffer from a sense of persecution and the need to purge themselves from it. This psychology resulted from what the Chinese refer to as “a century of humiliation”, starting from the Opium War in the mid-1800s, to the WWII in the mid-1900s after which the colonial era concluded. This was a period when Western powers landed and entered the prosperous costal regions of China at will and dictated terms with impunity on a helpless population. This had left the average Chinese with a perennial sense of deeply embedded mistrust for the West even to this day. If this is the nature of geopolitics becoming a factor in the border friction, the earlier one often referred to as the Great Game, is important in order not just to understanding what happened, but for the legacy it left behind and how this has contributed to the present uncertainty over India’s boundary.
The truth is, the British always were of the opinion that the Aksai Chin was of no value. Prof. Parshotam Mehra, in his important work, “Essays in Frontier History”, profiles this outlook by quoting the account of an adventurer Ney Alias, who explored the Gobi Desert, Hwang Ho basin, Yarkand Valley, Karakoram watersheds, Aksai Chin etc. Alias after joining the British service recommended: “the region between say the head of the Nubra Valley and the post of Shahidulla is a kind of no man’s land, only frequented by passing traders, peopled by the skeletons of men and horses, and as real a boundary between the Indian Empire and its northern neighbours as would be a vast and waterless desert.” But the fear that the then expanding Imperial Russia may enter Tibet prompted the British to claim its boundary extended right up to the Kuenlun Mountain ranges therefore put the entire Aksai Chin in its possession to block the passage to Tibet. This is the John Ardagh Line of 1897. This line, the British knew very well, was too stretched and would not be defensible. Then they had another alignment called the Macartney-Macdonald Line of 1899, which is less ambitious and leaves the Aksai Chin with Tibet. The third alignment is the Karakoram Line which follows the watershed principle, and was recommended as the most defensible by many surveyors and explorers, including Francis Younghusband who explored the region while he was still a captain. The Ardagh Line is what India claims as the extent of its legitimate territory. The Macartney-Macdonald Line is closest to where the line of actual control, LAC, as it stands today is. The Karakoram Line is probably where China would want the boundary to be. The fact also is, none of these three lines resulted out of a treaty and were just three different claims of the British while they were ruling India. This ambiguity therefore is what has given rise to the unsettled and disputed boundary between India and China in this sector. In the Northeast sector of this boundary, there is the McMahon Line, but this too has its own shares of problem and disputes. Our own opinion on the matter is, the sooner this boundary question is resolved and settled between the two Asian giants permanently, with a little give and take here and there, taking into consideration the actual needs of both sides as well as ensuring to the extent possible, that local populations are not splintered, the better it will be for both countries and everybody else in Asia.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author