China : Some Plainspeak

Boundary Dispute China Military


The article forming the basis of this story has caused immense amount of debate here, and I guess also in China. It is a realistic scenario, but personally I have reservations about it. The biggest difference between 1962 and today is that both of us have nuclear weapons. While China has the bandwidth to still go ahead and risk a limited nuclear response by India, the provocation will have to be very high. Arunachal has not really been very high on its list of priorities, as it is more interested in the Aksai Chin, from which its land link between Tibet and Xinjinag (spelling?) passes – and it is in control of that territory already. In fact in 1962 China had made an offer that it will give up its claim on Arunachal if India drops its claim to the area in Aksai Chin which was already in Chinese possession and through which it had already built the highway.

My perception and views on the issue may sound a little unpatriotic (and, in fact they are far from that), but I think that we made a very big mistake in not accepting this solution at that time. If you read up on the subject, you discover that the boundary that we very sentimentally defend is actually of rather dubious origin. The areas under dispute were largely uninhabited (like even today) and un-surveyed. The British Indian Government sent some expeditionary and survey missions to mark their territory in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. There was a lot of intrigue and inaccuracy in the delineation, and at that time the main aim of the British was to keep the Russians out of the region. The resultant boundary was changed by the British themselves on numerous occasions over the next 30 years or so. In early 1900s there was a conference at Shimla on the border issue, attended by the representatives of Britain / India, China and Tibet (which was a British protectorate). The British gave out their perception of the boundary at the conference and an agreement (known as the Shimla agreement – NOT to be confused by one with similar name signed between Indira Gandhi and Bhutto after the 1971 war) was signed by all – except China. China’s stance was that the issue of the boundary must be settled by agreement of all the parties, and she found the boundary being professed by the British very arbitrary. This is the boundary that we are still holding on to a hundred years later. As for China, the boundary issue was never settled, because it was unilaterally decided by the British and never agreed to by them. In their view, the issue should be settled between the two sovereign entities, independent India and China based on a mutually agreed settlement without any colonial baggage.

In the run up to 1962, China repeatedly tried to settle the dispute by mutual consultation, but our stance was firm – not an inch of our territory will be ceded. Its another issue that thousands of miles of it remains under occupation of Pakistan and China, with very little scope of us being able to reclaim it – particularly with respect to the latter. At that stage, the opinion of the Indian Intelligence and Foreign ministry was that China is too weak and involved in its internal problems to be able to attack us. We therefore got into a territorial chess with China. The troika of Jawaharlal Nehru, Krishna Menon (the defence minister) and Lt Gen BM Kaul (an ambitious general and an old crony of Nehru, who was the Chief of General Staff and generally more powerful than the Chief of Army Staff Gen Thapar) conceived the ‘forward policy’. The gist of this was that we go on setting frontier posts in the disputed territory to bolster our claims – prior to that the troops on both sides were deployed way behind, and the disputed area was by and large unheld. This action was initiated sometime in 1959, and was viewed as hostile by China. Between 1959 and 1962, there were many attempts by China to argue for a settlement based on mutual give and take. But our attitude remained  – we can have peace as long as you give up your entire claim – on what’s in our possession as well as what’s in yours. We keep what we have, and also what you presently have – you give it up irrespective.

To make matters worse, the press and the opposition turned the issue into an emotive jingoistic contest, leaving very little room for Nehru to manoeuvre. Nehru did not make matters any better by carrying out diplomacy through the press – his statements of bravado, meant for domestic audiences, were taken as extreme threats and provocation by the Chinese, who took them quite literally. So that is what actually led to the 1962 catastrophe. The Chinese came in from a position of strength owing to the advantage of terrain and road communications on their side of the border in Arunachal, literally overran the unprepared, underequipped and outnumbered Indian troops, and were in a position to threaten the plains of Assam. Then, they unilaterally called a ceasefire and withdrew to their pre war positions. Apparently, the idea was to demonstrate their might, and try and make India come to a negotiated settlement.

The whole point is that we seem to have learnt nothing from history. Why should a neighbour which is definitely stronger negotiate with you from a position of weakness and agree to a settlement which puts it into considerable disadvantage? To India, Aksai Chin is a ‘wasteland where not a blade of grass grows’ in Nehru’s words. To China it is a piece of land providing it a vital link between two of its frontline provinces. Why should they, under any negotiated settlement, give it up to honour our claim over it, a claim which is based on a treaty that they never recognised in the first place? But we are in the Catch 22 situation again. The issue remains emotive, and no government in its right mind could ever dare to suggest the blasphemy of opening our borders to negotiation. In fact even as I type these words I almost feel like a traitor in saying all that I am.

To make matters worse, articles such as these are played up by the media resulting in whipping up more hysteria and jingoism. Probably what is actually required is an exercise by the government to shape the public opinion towards some kind of a negotiated settlement of the boundary dispute with China. In doing so it needs to take the opposition and the media along with it, to avoid the mistakes that were made in 1962. We should not let statements and gestures by both sides aimed at domestic audiences serve to heighten the animosity and drive the two states to into a game of daring each other reach a point of no return once again.

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8 thoughts on “China : Some Plainspeak

  1. 1. I agree with the above views. We must take the Tibeten people along. This land is of the Tibeten people. Though the world is slowly lifting all borders, the people will live together as one people, however, different cultures must survive in their respective regions. If I take up residence in Tibet, I should live like the Tibeten people. My culture should remain unpoluted here in India & not, transported across to other countries. Whilst Tibet may be part of China, but Tibeten culture should be preserved. So any settlement of border with China, should have Tibeten representation.
    2. Today the battles are economic. We must get over these border issues, & beat China economically. In that we are deffinitely behind China. Whilst retaining our political system, we must edge forward, & not adopt Chinese methods.
    3. Well, you asked for my views & those are my views.

  2. Briefly …..India’s Forward Policy in 1962 led to a fine Army being corraled and tarnished for no fault of its own.India lost the initiative and claims. On border issue this is what Chinese have conveyed.

    Chinese are clear they want to move ahead economically, and are in no hurry to settle border on India’s terms but if India agrees to demarcate CENTRAL SECTOR they are ready today with GPS etc as Central sector maps stand exchanged. They say why are there perceptions, Lets Settle the Central sector. In West the Chinese are willing to exchange Aksai Chin with Arunachal as both are occupied by Chinese and Indians respectively. In the Eastern sector Tawang is a stumbling block but if we give in to stop Dalia Lama’s political actions, which irritates China, and give rights to Tibeteans to visit Tawang, there is some scope but India wants a consolidated settlement and the land ceeded by Pakistan and Aksai Chin and India too seems in no hurry. With Tri Junctions consolidated settlement is a diffcult task and our future generations will have to sort out the mess, like Indian Enclaves in Bangla Desh and theirs in India and MEA is not bothered. Lets see if the new NSA tells us the truth.

  3. Excellent analyses by Sword. The original article carries an underlying weakness in drawing too many conclusions, which tend to be scare raising. The genesis of the border dispute clearly lies in British legacy as it does in every inch of land where they treaded in pursuit of their goals. Nehru and his team acted more as caretakers of the legacy handed over rather than engage as a new nation with its neighbours on basis of a justified and mutually agreed approach to boundary demarcation. Entrenched colonial bureaucracy only aggravated the stand off.
    There is no doubt that we are faced with growing threats, all on account of our own debilities and misplaced priorities, indeed political bankruptcy. We have no friends right around our borders, not even Nepal, Shri Lanka apart. It’s not a direct clash with Chinese that is likely but rather their strategy of indirect approach using the handle of internal threats that we should be preparing for, not only the Maoist front but also a fresh upsurge in J&K.

  4. An editorial in the Hindustan Times today “Bull in our China Shop” pretty much reflects the views expressed in this post.

    Debasish Roy Chowdhury, the Money Editor, South China Morning Post, Hong Kong writes, ” The McMahon Line, which we treat as a kind of lakshman rekha, is a prime example of the cartographic muddle bequeathed to us. China was not a signatory to the Simla Accord, in which maps with the McMahon Line were intro- duced, and always treated the accord — signed between British and Tibetan authorities — as illegal. If we accept China’s sovereignty over Tibet, which we do, there goes one signatory. The other, Britain, officially dumped the accord in 2008, calling it “an anachronism“.

    So let’s see, we had a disputed border and we wouldn’t talk.
    To make matters worse, we set in motion a `forward policy’ in which we went about planting outposts along the eastern border, sometimes north of the McMahon Line, setting us on a collision course with the Chinese. Let alone the Chinese, our own soldiers and sections of the government often questioned the wisdom of this policy. It’s all on record.”

    The point is that we need to get out of the colonial legacy and get over the 1962 psyche to be able to sort out our issues with China. If we continue to hold an irrelevant boundary as sacrosanct, there can be no move possible. The political and popular climate needs to be managed by the government to build a consensus and take bold steps to solve this problem.

  5. DEAR SIR,

  6. @Satty – I have not claimed to be an expert – had that been the case, I probably would have been writing for India Today or the Times of India,not merely on my own blog. I am just a commentator, and if you read the beginning of the second para of the post, these are merely “my perceptions and views”.

    Neither of us were present for and privy to all the deliberations that would have taken place before taking each of the decisions over the centuries which has brought us to the current situation. Therefore whether it is your point of view or mine, both are our individual perceptions based on our interpretation and analysis of what we have read in books.

    In case you so vehemently feel that your interpretation and analysis is better, more accurate and true, who am I to disagree?

    I would definitely be keen to learn the full details, but rather than via email, it would be great if you could post it here itself – that way a larger audience would be able to benefit from it. You could do it over a number of comments in case word limit is an issue.

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