Ambassador of India to Myanmar & GCTC Advisory Board Member
WHEN reports started pouring in recently, of Chinese troops again crossing the LoC in Ladakh, there was a feeling of considerable concern in India. There were queries in the minds of some, on whether our northern defences would be breached yet again by our assertive and ambitious northern neighbour, as it did in 1962. Many in India still remain afflicted by the ‘1962 syndrome’, though there is now better confidence in India’s growing military, economic and diplomatic clout. There now appears to be a better understanding of how a growingly confident India has handled Chinese aggression on its borders in more recent times.
The 1962 debacle has been attributed to a gross misreading of Chinese intentions by the then PM, Jawaharlal Nehru, and defence minister VK Krishna Menon. We went wrong even in military appointments in 1962. Lt Gen BN Kaul, an officer with no combat experience, was appointed to lead the Indian forces in the then Northeast Frontier Agency (now Arunachal Pradesh). Gen PN Thapar was made the Army Chief, overlooking the claims of the highly decorated and respected Lt Gen SV Thorat. Our forces were ill-equipped and outgunned by the Chinese. The Chinese army was battle-hardened, after challenging the Americans in Korea. Successive governments led by Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi built up our defence capacities, which led to the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, thanks also to Soviet military supplies.
India’s forces were tested yet again, when Chinese forces crossed the generally accepted international border, and took up positions in an area called Sumdorong Chu in 1986. Then Army Chief, Gen Sundarji, airlifted around 3,000 troops, just south of the border, to areas occupied earlier by the Chinese, leaving the Chinese dumbfounded. China’s supreme leader Deng Xiaoping warned that he would teach India ‘another lesson’. He evidently forgot the ‘lessons’ China received in 1979, after he had similarly warned and invaded Vietnam!
Successive governments have followed up by expanding ties with China. Despite this, the Sino-Indian border remains vulnerable to Chinese moves to expand its influence by probing militarily in places like Doklam, which have been thwarted by India. China has, thus far, refused to discuss, define and delineate the border. Beijing wishes to keep the territorial issue alive to pressure India through cross-border incursions.
Indian forces, including a Mountain Division, are now deployed in Ladakh, backed by tanks, artillery and armoured personnel carriers, and air support. The Modi government is determined to improve the transportation corridors in what is now the UT of Ladakh. Speaking in Parliament on August 5, 2019, Home Minister Amit Shah observed: ‘Kashmir is an integral part of India, there is no doubt over it. When I talk about J&K, Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and Aksai Chin are included in it.’
The Chinese have protested this statement, given their territorial claims in Ladakh and their concerns about the development of the airport and other facilities at Daulat Beg Oldie. The airport is located barely 8 km from the sensitive Aksai Chin corridor, linking China’s Tibet and Xinjiang provinces. Beijing seeks to eventually control the entire Aksai Chin plateau, on which parts of Ladakh are located. India is, however, firmly going ahead with the construction of roads, including its strategic air base.
China is also concerned about recent moves reflecting close cooperation between India, the US and Australia, along with countries like Indonesia and Vietnam, to call into question Beijing’s excessive maritime territorial claims on virtually all its neighbours, including Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia. These claims are in gross violation of the International Laws of the Seas. India has, in recent years, been promoting an assertive response to China’s efforts to undermine its relations with all its neighbours, bilaterally, regionally and internationally, while using Pakistan as its stalking horse. Moreover, India has not joined others in pointing fingers at what many across the world believe is the cover-up by China of the facts on the source of the coronavirus.
India has, however, worked with others and ensured that the 130-member WHO voted for an inquiry into the emergence of the virus.
China realises that India is going to stand firm in Ladakh. Most importantly, India will not go back on its decision to build a network of roads across the areas of present tensions in the Pangong Lake and Galwan River. This was made clear to China when New Delhi announced recently that 11 special trains were set to carry 11,815 workers to Ladakh, J&K, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand for work on road projects.
China would be well advised to remember that India in 2020 is not what it was in 1962. The Chinese failed to change existing borders in previous instances. Growing Chinese arrogance has led to new global rivalries, pitting it against the US and many European powers, like the UK, France and Germany. Beijing has also not succeeded in undermining India’s influence in the Indian Ocean Region. Differences and tensions on the Sino-India border can, however, be addressed if China abides by the provisions of the border agreement signed in 2005. The agreement states that the border ‘should be along well defined and easily identifiable natural geographical features, mutually agreed on’. The meeting of senior regional commanders of India and China has set the stage for a dialogue to resolve differences. One has, however, to look forward to hard negotiations ahead. China is not generally given to easily returning territories it claims and seizes.