We all know about the on-going Indo-China territorial dispute in Ladakh. Two names came up as the center of flash points. These are (1) Galwan River Valley & (2) Finger 4 of Pangong Tso Lake. Apart from these points, Chinese troops were also seen moving in large numbers at Hot Springs and Gogra in Ladakh and Naku La in Sikkim, all of which falls inside the Indian territory. On 16th July 2020, twenty brave Indian soldiers were martyred in violent clashes with the Chinese troops in the Eastern Ladakh region. The clashes happened amidst a “de-escalation” process in the Galwan region that was started in the previous week after a month-long standoff between troops at several juncture along the LAC in Ladakh and Sikkim. Since the Line of Actual Control has never been demarcated properly, there are varying perceptions that triggers tension at different junctures. Here, let us try to elaborate what is going on in the region.
The article looks into the history of Indo-China border from the days of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. It takes into account each and every subsequent event that happened henceforth including Simla Accord (1914), acceptance of LAC, the Panchsheel Treaty to recent construction of DSDBO highway. Additionally, the article also discusses China’s objective behind escalating tension while the world is confronting COVID-19 pandemic crisis. Lastly, the article also gives an insight into the significance of DSDBO Road and Pangong Tso Lake.
The Indo-China territorial issues over these features of Ladakh started in 1962 after the war only. The Chinese captured certain parts of Ladakh, especially the east, and formed a new boundary, not fully accepted or demarcated on any maps in the region. This boundary is the Line of Actual Control or LAC as we call it. The whole dispute, going on now is in relation to this LAC. However, to understand it properly, we have to go back 200 years in history.
It was in 1819, during the reign of Punjab Kesri, Maharaja Ranjit Singhji, Jammu, Kashmir & Ladakh region was regained from the declining Durrani Empire of Afghanistan. Maharaja Ranjit Singhji, vested the authority of reigning the region on his trusted Dogra Rajput vassal, Maharaja Gulab Singh. In 1841, the General of Maharaja Gulab Singh, Zorawar Singh, launched a campaign to delineate a proper boundary of Ladakh in its north East and in the process would get inside Tibet. He would capture Gartok temporarily. But he would soon be pushed back by the joint force of Tibet & Han Chinese. This joint expeditionary force would follow the Sikhs back to Ladakh, where the Sikhs would re-group again and defeat them. Subsequently, peace would return in the boundary of Ladakh. However in 1846, the British would defeat the Sikhs and get the area of Jammu, Kashmir & Ladakh as compensation. Subsequently Maharaja Gulab Singh would purchase the right to rule the region from the British by paying a price of 1 million pound or 75 lakh rupees of the time.
In 1911, there would be a revolution (the Xinhai Revolution) in China by Sun Yat-sen (Sun Yixian) and the Qing Dynasty’s rule would come to an end. Post this revolution China would be divided into three parts – Mongolia in the northern most part, China at the centre and Tibet at the south. In 1912, through Russo-Mongolian Agreement, Mongolia would be recognised as an independent nation. In 1913, A Treaty of friendship and alliance between the Government of Mongolia and Tibet was signed which is considered as de jure recognition of Tibet as a state. In 1914, the Simla Accord or the Simla Convention was concluded between the representatives of British India, Tibet and China. Lord McMahon was the plenipotentiary of British India. This Simla Accord divided Tibet into two parts – Inner Tibet and Outer Tibet. According to the terms of the Accord, China enjoyed the sovereignty over Inner Tibet while suzerainty over Outer Tibet. Tibetan government at Lhasa continued to govern over the Outer Tibet. However though the initial draft of the convention was signed by all the three countries (British India, China and Tibet), Chinese plenipotentiary, Ivan Chen, declined to sign the slightly revised convention. This revised convention was signed between Britain and Tibet on 3rd July 1914. Subsequently, a bilateral declaration was attached by the plenipotentiaries of the British and Tibet that debarred China from interfering into the internal and external affairs of Outer Tibet. Extraterritorial and trading rights in Outer Tibet were retained by the British India. With India gaining her independence, these rights as per Accord were transferred from British India to Republic of India.
Meanwhile when this agreement was signed in 1914, Britain and Russia had already entered into a mutual agreement among themselves regarding Tibet and the surrounding regions. In 1921, Russia and Britain jointly renounced the Anglo-Russian Convention and subsequently in 1927 the understandings of Lord McMahan was accepted by Britain. In 1937, the Survey of India published a map which showed the McMahon Line as the official boundary between India and Tibet and the Simla Convention was officially published in 1938.
In 1950, the Communist Party came to power in China and from the very beginning being wary of the privileges that India had inherited from the Britishers, they started commenting “India pretends not to have any ambition on Tibetan policies or land but desires to maintain the privileges that were signed in the treaties signed since 1906”. Eventually, in the same year the Chinese army invaded Tibet and defeated the Tibetan army and captured Outer Tibet and also threatened Dalai Lama’s life. Following this, on Dalai Lama’s request, India would start mediating between the Chinese and the Tibetans and eventually issues started to come to normalcy. Chinese representatives were sent to Lhasa for negotiating with the Tibetan government and the Dalai Lama. A Seventeen Point Agreement was signed between the Tibetan government and China in 1951 though China established its sovereignty over Tibet. In the agreements, it was also mentioned that Chinese would not interfere in the socio-economic and religious practices of Tibet. Hence, in these areas the Tibetans would enjoy a little autonomy and it gave birth to the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). However, as India was involved in this mediation process, the Chinese would still keep on commenting that India still has some interest over the region and that is why India is maintaining theses privileges over the region.
In 1954, the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence commonly known as Panchsheel Treaty was signed by Pandit Nehru with China. According to the Treaty, both India and China would not interfere in each other internal affairs and respect each other’s territorial unity, integrity and sovereignty. Despite several reservations and objection Nehru went forward to recognise TAR being a part of China and subsequently gave up all the rights over Tibet which India had inherited historically.
Things started to deteriorate after this. In 1956, Peking Public Library published a map of China for the first-time showing Arunachal Pradesh as part of China. Furious Nehru took the sensitive issue to Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai who just bypassed it asserting it a clerical error which would be rectified and assured that the People’s Republic had no claims on Indian territory. However, Pandit Nehru kept a very close eye over this issue.
Later in the same year, Chinese started interfering in the internal matters of North-Eastern India. Weapons in large numbers and huge amounts of money were observed pouring in the adjoining districts of Naga Hills. Present day Nagaland was an autonomous region of Assam province back then. Angami Zapu Phizo, a Naga nationalist leader, constituted Naga Army and started a revolution in the Naga region. It was observed that the Naga Army was supported by the Chinese weapons and Chinese funds. The Nehruvian government accepted these activities as violation of Panchsheel Treaty and acknowledged that Chinese cannot be trusted.
In 1959, conditions in Tibet again started to deteriorate. Dalai Lama repudiated the Seventeen Point Agreement which brought life threat over him. Assisted by CIA’s Special Activities Division, Dalai Lama crossed the borders and came to India on 30th March 1959. Nehru looked at this as an opportunity. He said that it was India’s responsibility as a mediator of 1950 agreement to provide protection to the Tibetans. As China violating the clauses of the agreement India must stand by the Tibetans. Eventually, the then home minister of India, Govind Ballabh Pant, received Dalai Lama and gave him asylum in India. In this backdrop, China publicly criticised Nehru and accused him of violating the Panchsheel Treaty. If this was the case, then there arises the question what was China doing during 1956?
Notwithstanding this, in 1959, China again published a new map where whole of Aksai Chin region and some parts of eastern Ladakh was shown as a part of China. Though this was vehemently opposed by Indian government, in September 1962 again a new map was published by China depicting some more parts of eastern Ladakh as part of China. Subsequently, on 20th October, 1962 Chinese soldiers crossed the McMahon Line and launched instantaneous offensives at Ladakh in West and at Tawang in East. As fierce battle continued, Indian soldiers continued to retreat and massed at Bomdi La and Se La. In November, when China declared unilateral cease fire, it was seen that Chinese troops had actually captured more territory than that was shown in the previous 1959 or 1962 maps. But, what was China actually trying to do by publishing these maps and waging wars?
China was constructing a highway between Xinjiang, the western most province of China, and Tibet, which crossed through Aksai Chin region. This highway was being constructed without India’s consent. The construction of this highway started in 1958. Around 175 km of this highway crossed over the Aksai Chin region. However, India-China relation had not deteriorated to this extent in 1958, though construction this highway also raises question on violation of the Panchsheel Treaty from the Chinese end. Owing to the military importance, China was actually trying to safeguard the highway and therefore in this process tried to capture the Indian territories (especially the hills and the ridges) as much as possible to create a buffer region.
The Present Sino-Indian Territorial Conflict
Since the 1967 Indo-China clash in Sikkim, there has been no major crisis between the two neighbours. Though some clashes between the troops of the two countries were observed from time to time especially during the 1987 Sumdorong Chu incident and in the Doklam plateau incident of 2017. However, all such crisis incidents were resolved through diplomatic efforts and without casualties. Face-off and stand-off circumstances are not new along the LAC in areas where the duo, Indo-China, have overlapping claim lines. After 1987 Sumdorong Chu incident it appeared that Indo-China border tensions are diffusing and getting stabilised but the Doklam incident indicated that the border relationship again started deteriorating and reached at its peak this year in 2020 as Beijing adopted a more assertive approach to its territorial dispute. Here, a very critical question arises here, when both India and China have been reeling under COVID-19 crisis, then why China opted to escalate tension along the border now?
The present crisis and the elevated hostilities along the contentious Indo-Tibet border must be inspected in terms of China’s grand strategy that has historically evolved for achieving some highly correlated objectives of (i) preserving domestic economic and political interests and enabling smooth political transitions, (ii) securing its self-interests, sovereignty and territory at all costs (iii) and achieving global influence and capability of dictating policies from a position of primacy. Assertion of Chinese territorial claims and aggressive patrolling along the LAC must be observed through the lens of these three grand strategic objectives.
Apart from these, China has been reeling under economic duress and confronting multiple external as well internal challenges since the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic. China has already sparred with Vietnam and Malaysia in the South China Sea, revoked Hong Kong’s autonomy, threatened Taiwan, traded barbs with the US, chased Japanese fishing boats and is now challenging India at the LAC. All these have spiked unrest among its citizens as well. The Chinese leadership seem to be willing to accept the costs of heightened tensions with their neighbours so as to broadcast an aura of strength to domestic audiences.
Moreover, several experts have also opined that accelerating partnerships between India and US and the Indian government’s decision of revoking Kashmir’s statehood in August 2019 have also added to China’s irritation.
Additionally, acceleration of Indian infrastructure development near the LAC has also raised China’s concern. China does not want to leave any stone unturned in its effort to stop construction activities by India. The construction of the 255 km long Darbuk- Shyokh- Daulat Beg Oldie (DSDBO) road that runs parallel to the LAC in Ladakh has add to the woes of PLA.
Strategic Importance of DSDBO
The strategic significance of this road is that it connects Leh to Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO), virtually at the foot of Karakoram Pass which separates autonomous region of China’s Xinjiang province from Ladakh. DBO is the northernmost area of Indian territory in Ladakh. The area is better known as Sub-Sector North. DBO has the highest airstrip of the world, originally constructed during 1962 war but remained abandoned until 2008. The Indian Air Force revived it in 2008 as Advanced Landing Grounds (ALGs) along the LAC.
Secondly, the DSDBO road gives the Indian military access to the fragment of the Tibet-Xinjiang highway which crosses through Aksai Chin. This road runs parallel to the LAC at Aksai Chin – eastern ear of the erstwhile state of Jammu & Kashmir that was occupied by China in 1950s which had provoked the 1962 war.
Thirdly, apart from having the world’s highest airstrip, DBO has additional strategic significance which is well known to China. Western side of the DBO lies the Gilgit-Baltistan area where China abuts Pakistan. It is a Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir region through which Beijing’s ambitious China – Pakistan Economic Corridor passes, to which India has objected.
The Problematic Pangong Lake and its Significance
The LAC mostly passes from over the land, but Pangong Lake in the eastern Ladakh is a unique case where the Line passes through the water. India and China have different interpretation of the points where Indian claim ends and Chinese claim begins. Pangong Tso is a 135 km long lake that sprawls over 604sq km and takes the shape of a boomerang. It is situated above 14000ft and is 6km wide at its broadest point. India controls the western third of the Lake that lies to the east of Karakoram and Ladakh Ranges, while the eastern two-thirds are controlled by China.
The lake’s northern bank hosts eight geological protrusions — mountainous “fingers” grasping toward the water. Territorial claim of India extends east to Finger 8 while west to Finger 2 is claimed by China. However, the issue at Pangong Lake is not about overlapping of claims, rather on the location of LAC. China argues that the LAC belongs to Finger 4 while India says it lies in the east at Finger 8. To explain this in layman’s term, China wants to take away the control of Finger 4 from India due to its tactical advantage. Out of the ‘8 Fingers’, Finger 4 is the highest point in the territory. So, basically due to its height, one who controls Finger 4, practically controls the whole lake.
Recent reports of violent clashes between Indian and Chinese troops in Galwan River valley have escalated tensions in the region. India has already conveyed to China that this deadly clash in eastern Ladakh region will bring in serious impact in the bilateral relations. If Beijing still remains entrenched in its forward position New Delhi can respond through multiple avenues. The Department of Telecom has asked the private mobile service providers to avoid using network equipment made by Huawei and ZTE. This prevents desperate Huawei to gain access to one of the largest markets of world. Additionally, India has already started boycotting Chinese products and promoting Indian goods. If China does not retreat its forces even after these then there are several other policy options in the hands of India. India can involve in strengthening engagement with the QUAD to welcoming Australia’s involvement in Malabar, hold China accountable for its irresponsibility in the COVID-19 pandemic, uplifting engagement with Taiwan, and more aggressively supporting navigational freedom in the South China Sea. The ball is now in China’s court and it remains to be seen how it responds.