In an article of December 20, 2010, titled The Missing 1500 KM, I had stated as follows:
China, which had never openly questioned the Indian estimate of the length of the common border before, is now unilaterally seeking to exclude from consideration during the border talks the dispute between India and China over the Chinese occupation of a large territory in the Ladakh sector of J&K.
In fact, it is seeking to question India’s locus standi to discuss with China the border in the J&K area in view of Pakistan’s claims to this area. It is trying to bring in Pakistan as an interested party in so far as the border talks regarding the Western sector are concerned. It wants to change the format of the border talks in order to keep it confined bilaterally to the Eastern and middle sectors and expand it to a trilateral issue involving India, China and Pakistan in the Western sector. The exclusion of the border in the J&K sector from its estimate of the total length of the border is another indication that it does not recognize India’s claims of sovereignty over J&K.
This has come in the wake of its decision to stop issuing regular visas to Indian citizens residing in J&K and to issue them only stapled visas. It is apparent that this is part of a well thought-out policy of unilaterally changing the ground rules of the border talks. It had earlier allegedly changed the ground rules in the Eastern sector by going back on a prior understanding with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that the border should be demarcated in such a manner as not to affect populated areas. It is now going back on its previous stand in the Western sector by seeking to challenge India’s locus standi in view of its dispute with Pakistan.
The Chinese manoeuvres to change the ground rules are reflected in the latest situation created by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) ( a platoon of it) in advancing 19 kms inside the hitherto perceived Line of Actual Control (LOAC) in the Dipsang area of Eastern Ladakh on April 15, 2013, and staying put there in tents.
In the absence of any commonly accepted maps indicating a mutually accepted perception of the LOAC, the understanding as to where the LOAC lies largely depends on the differing individual perceptions of the two countries. While the Indian perceptions remain constant, the Chinese perceptions remain changing depending on its individual interest.
The Chinese assertion of claims of territorial sovereignty in the Eastern Ladakh area had in the past remained restricted to a few kms from the LOAC. For the first time now, it has unilaterally changed the perception by 19 kms. Whether the Chinese ultimately withdraw from this area or not, by this intrusion, Beijing is seeking to impose a change in the ground situation that had prevailed since 1962 by unilaterally imposing a new perception of the LOAC which will expand Chinese claims to Indian territory in this area.
At the same time, according to media reports that have not been questioned by the government of India, the PLA is demanding India’s reversal of its reported re-activation of the advanced landing grounds at Daulat Beg Oldie, Fukche and Nyoma and suspension of India’s construction of temporary posts at Chumar and Fukche to provide shelters to patrolling Indian troops.
In one stroke, China is seeking to expand considerably the area over which it claims sovereignty and restrict or reduce the area over which India has been claiming sovereignty.
Why has China suddenly sought to activate sovereignty issues in this area and to change unilaterally hitherto accepted perceptions/claims of the LOAC? This area where the PLA has embarked on a policy of activism, contrary to China’s proclamations of its interest in finding a peaceful solution to the border dispute and maintaining peace and tranquillity in the border areas, has assumed importance for China in view of its proximity to the Karakoram area in the Gilgit-Baltistan area of Pakistan where the Chinese have stepped their construction activities and inducted Chinese protection troops to protect the construction teams with the acceptance of the government of Pakistan, which has been in illegal occupation of Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK) and Gilgit-Baltistan (GB).
If a confrontational situation develops between India and China, India will have two cards at its disposal— re-activate Tibet, which will be a difficult option or make the Chinese presence in GB prohibitively costly for China just as the US made the Soviet presence in Afghanistan bloody costly for the erstwhile USSR. The second is a doable option.
India looks upon POK and GB as an integral part of India. The Chinese presence in that area is a violation of India’s sovereignty claims. India has strategic allies amongst the people of GB who could help it in making the Chinese presence costly. GB can provide India with the option of proxy activism in that area to make the Chinese pay for their repeated intrusions in the Ladakh area.
The Chinese are seeking to pre-empt possible Indian activism against Chinese presence and interests in the GB area by occupying new territory in Eastern Ladakh and keeping the Indian Army away from the vicinity of the Karakoram area.
Whatever be the final outcome of the present stand-off, the Chinese manoeuvres to prevent India from possibly using the GB card against them will continue. We should not lose this card and should not legitimise the Chinese presence in the GB area. We have already lost the Tibet card by accepting Tibet in writing as an integral part of China. We should not lose the GB card by succumbing to the new Chinese pressure in the areas in the proximity of the Karakoram area.
This may please be read in continuation of my earlier article, Chinese Intrusions, on the India-China Border Dispute of April 23, 2013.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies. Twitter: @SORBONNE75