China is boxing both itself and India in an untenable situation in Ladakh. It will gain nothing and lose a lot from the current confrontation. There can be no Asian century if India and China are at loggerheads, with China seeking to impede India’s rise and India ready to develop partnerships to constrain China’s overvaulting ambitions. China cannot look for partners in Asia beyond Pakistan to shackle India, whereas India can look at powerful partners outside Asia to counter China’s muscle flexing and ego-centric economic policies.
China’s presence in Ladakh has been ab initio that of an aggressive interloper. With no historical claim on Ladakh, it has manufactured one by occupying Tibet and then poaching into Indian territory. Its claim on Ladakh has no basis in customary law as Han China has never set foot in this area. It built the Aksai Chin road illegally, and to protect which it invented the 1959 claim line. After staging the 1962 conflict it extended claim to more territory in Ladakh. These high altitude desolate areas cannot be physically occupied permanently, and so these claims are notional based on presumed military capacity. The 1959 line was drawn unilaterally by China and was rejected by Nehru even then. After the 1993, 1996, 2005, 2012 and 2103 border-related agreements based on existing perceptions of LAC (not the 1959 line) — whence the protocols for patrolling in disputed areas — for China to revert to the 1959 line as the basis of disengagement shows once again how China dishonours agreements to suit its strategy and why its foreign policy is fundamentally unscrupulous.
In 1996, China agreed to clarify LAC on the map so that the perception of each side about where it lay could be established. After exchanging maps for the central sector, China unilaterally withdrew from the exercise in 2002 on specious grounds when the writer was foreign secretary. Nevertheless, even as late as 2006, the joint declaration issued when president Hu Jintao visited stated in para 22 : “The joint working group on the India-China boundary question shall expedite their work, including on the clarification and confirmation of the Line of Actual Control…It was agreed to complete the process of exchanging maps indicating their respective perceptions of the entire alignment of LAC on the basis of already agreed parameters as soon as possible.” For the Chinese to now rule this out because this exercise will create new disputes is hollow rationalisation of their habit of violating agreements at will.
The latest balloon flying on the 1959 line is China’s information war designed to mislead and hoodwink, and some in India have fallen prey by suggesting that both sides should withdraw to some distance from this line and create a buffer zone which nether side will patrol. In other words, accept Zhou EnLai’s proposal made 61 years ago and withdraw from our own territory patrolled by us to pacify China. This is defeatism.
China’s arrogant rejection of the new map of Ladakh is an affront. The map does not question China’s sovereignty as the UT’s external boundaries have not been changed. If China questions our right to change internal boundaries of our states, we should remind China about its revision of Tibet’s historical internal boundaries, and worse, seeking to extend its external boundaries into India. We should react more robustly to China’s questioning of our sovereignty in Ladakh. Our latest statement is sharper in tone but its pitch needs to be raised for China to hear properly. Henceforth, we should always refer to the India-Tibet boundary, the India-China boundary.
The writer is former foreign secretary