It is a saga of political intrigue of more than 70 years of three new nations which emerged on the cusp of mid twentieth century. The British left the subcontinent, albeit leaving ambiguously defined boundaries at places creating a scope for exploitation for cartographic opportunism. Whether it was by design, or political negligence has been a matter of debate without any definite conclusions. China and Pakistan took advantage of the vacant political space and expanded beyond their legitimate territories based on orchestrated narratives.
India nurturing virtues of politically correct approach and a bit of naivety coupled with complacency became the victim of deceit and duplicity of her neighbours in this story. The much revered international institutions entrusted to provide justice were seen to be helpless mute spectators witnessing the doctrine of ‘Encroachers are the Keepers’ unfolding with impunity. The expansionist ambitions of Pakistan as well as China continue unabated till date. J&K has been central to their designs with its religious, water and communications connect, hence an area of high strategic import.
Pakistan nurtures takeover of J&K through insurgency route, and China has ambitions of global leadership through economic expansion requiring secure trade routes over land as well sea. In that, India is perceived to be the stumbling block in achieving their political objectives. In consequence, India has been drawn into five military confrontations, four by the Pakistan and one by China. They are also indulging in relentless pursuits to destabilize India through strains of proxy war of hybrid variants.
The timings of recent Chinese attempts of intrusions in the Eastern Ladakh and Pakistani intentions of declaring Gilgit-Baltistan as their fifth province is no coincidence. It is a well orchestrated political convergence with their mischievous motive of according legitimacy to their occupied Indian territories. In their perception, India, with such a collusive threat, is unlikely to cross the political threshold transgressing into military confrontation. In consequence, India is expected to accept LAC and LOC as defacto boundaries either through silent consent, or by default over period of time due to reality of non retrievable situation.
The current episode is China driven in order to push their biggest political investment in CPEC, a mechanism to circumvent the hostile sea routes for Chinese economic expansion. The CPEC is meant to create a redundancy for conduct of trade through a high capacity land route with assured security. Hence, it is a matter of compulsion without compromise for the Chinese leadership. Pakistan is the willing facilitator and accomplice with China with eyes on enhancing military deterrence against India.
The disputes are related to claims on boundaries of state of Jammu and Kashmir as it exised on 27 October 1947, the day Maharaja Hari Singh ceded his state to India. The J&K is the cross road and junction point of Central, South and East Asia, besides biggest reservoir of water for the lower riparian Pakistan and India. The strategic space vacated by the British opened up opportunities to Pakistan for their water security, and China for their connectivity to mineral rich Central Asia. Apropos, Pakistan on religious grounds, and China based on unsubstantiated historical narratives chose to launch pre emptive military strikes to occupy parts of erstwhile state of J&K.
They continue to occupy these areas till date with perceived incapability of India to recapture these tracks with military force. This is the reason that both China and Pakistan keep on humiliating India at will with impunity. What then is way out to address this Indian sensitivity and connected political dilemma?
The Chinese political hubris lies in her export oriented economic prudence; hence her most sensitive nerve which needs to be addressed to get the right effects. Therefore, answer lies in creating political leverages to call Chinese bluff of her historical manipulations through threat of economic strangulation by military means. To do that, India may have to seek alliance with the global and regional powers to bridge the power balance gap with China. Once China is managed, Pakistan would fall in line by default.
Therefore, a look at historical fact file would be in order to confront Chinese claims over Aksai Chin. China has created a narrative of unsubstantiated historical precedence as the basis of their claims both in Aksai Chin as well as NEFA. Consequent to Chinese occupation of Tibet by force, the Aksai Chin became their area of interest as it facilitated a suitable route to connect with mineral rich Xinjiang. It motivated them to bring about a notion of concept of swap of NEFA with Aksai Chin.
NEFA had been under administration of the British with boundary based on water shed principle known as Mac Mohan line post 1914 Shimla agreement. It was duly signed by Chinese and Tibetan representatives, albeit not ratified by the Chinese government subsequently. The part ambiguity of its status from Chinese perspective is being used very cleverly as leverage. Therefore, Chinese proposal of swap of territories on quid pro basis goes to suggest that Aksai Chin was not part of Tibet or China.
The British maps of late nineteenth century show Aksai Chin as part of J&K with boundary with Tibet astride Kunlun ranges, also known as the Johnson Line(1865). As per Wikipedia, the British did offered Aksai Chin to China in 1899 (Mac Carteney-Mac Donald line) with boundary along Karakoram ranges so as to create a buffer to check Russian expansion. However, China never responded to this offer which was rescinded later by the British.
This factual position is further reinforced by Chinese government postal map of 1917-1933 vintage showing Aksai Chin as part of British India. Even the Peking university atlas of 1925 edition also shows Aksai Chin as British territory. The maps of East Turkmenistan of early twentieth century also have the similar boundary alignments. Hence China has been misrepresenting their cited sources for their claims. The Johnson line was the official boundary between J&K and Tibet when the British left and state was ceded to union of India.
When India did not agree to their of swap of regions, China orchestrated 1962 war and captured Aksai Chin. They occupied areas which were necessary to provide depth to their newly constructed National Highway 219 and facilitate domination of Indian approaches emanating from Ladakh. China by this act intended to shift the boundary from Kunlun ranges to Karakoram ranges. Having achieved their immediate aim of desired territorial encroachments, China initiated the concept of LAC, a highly ambiguous alignment not defined till date.
It provides them flexibility to manipulate the control line in sync with the situational necessities. China talks of 1959 claim line as proposed by then Prime Minister Zhou Enlai which was not accepted by the Indian establishment ever. It happens to be a unilateral claim line sans any conclusive cartographic or political treaty as per the recorded history.
In view of factual situation as discussed above, let us delve into the reasons of Chinese political conduct as the solution to resolving the boundary issue also lies in it. A dispassionate analysis of Chinese apprehensions would suggest that china is looking primarily at security of Aksai Chin, NH219 connecting Xinjiang, CPEC and SLOC in IOR. Moreover, China appears to be keen to humiliate India to showcase her military credentials in their march towards their global ambitions.
There are number of options for China to address these national interests. The first option is what they are currently trying to do by pressurizing India into political submission and asserting their sovereignty in South China Sea. Second is to further escalate the ante by waging a limited, or full fledged war which their officials and media have been threatening. Third option is to go in for mediation by a third party as is being suggested by US time and again. The fourth option is to dig in along the LAC and continue in this posture till political solution is arrived at a later date.
Military confrontation with India with matching combat capabilities backed with nuclear triad has its own inimical connotations. There are fair chances of China unlikely to achieve a decisive outcome. Even if it happens to be a stalemate, it would amount to victory for India. China would certainly not like a military setback as it will not only be a loss of face, but also detrimental to their global ambitions.
As regards to mediation China is certainly not likely to agree as it will expose their unsubstantiated narratives besides disadvantage of her low creditability. Even India may be averse due to likelihood of losing out part of her legally correct claims as such mediations often result in compromises. The fourth option amounts to converting LAC into LOC which suits China, besides its human and economic costs related to super high altitude conditions. Therefore, it needs to be offset in order to keep the window open for negotiations of the boundary issue.
China in her hubris and high self opinion syndrome has taken Indian strategic patience as sign of her weakness. China has failed to take into account of proven Indian military credentials, rising economy and high strategic pull which goes into making gross national power. None of their appreciated objectives have been achieved despite six months of military standoff in Ladakh. In fact their proposals of ‘no new inductions’ and ‘de-escalation of reserves in depth first’ do convey their defensive psyche. China seems to be in a fix and obviously looking for face saving way out of the situation created by them.
It is getting clearer by the day that the military options may not work out. On the contrary, China by indulging in such a coercive act has done more damage to her image. China has lost India for ever and so is the case with number of other countries who respect the rule based political conduct. As India was seen to be opting to increase economic and social synergies, this act of China has lost 600 millions of young Indian partners forever. It cannot be a business as usual with one fifth of the humanity and fifth largest economy not marching along with them.
Besides India, large part of international community seems to be moving away from China looking at her unfair political conduct. There are also reports of few countries planning to move out their manufacturing units from China to other destinations. There are possibilities of imposing economic sanctions and trade restrictions on China. It would certainly impact on economic buoyancy of China, their biggest political strength as on date. It will also impact on employment scene in China leading to social disharmony in times to come.
The western world lead by the US is already up in the arms signaling economic strangulation of China through military means in Indo-Pacific. The QUAD is building up into a potent military concept to check Chinese hegemonic ways. France and Germany are also likely to join the group as the indications suggest. India with her geographical synergies is in a very strong position to impact on Chinese merchant shipping. It is an effective coercive military leverage to create strategic hydraulics, should China choose to launch a military offensive on land borders.
Therefore, in the given environment, Indian political intent to oppose Chinese pursuits through IOR and CPEC would get further stronger, if China does not pull back and discourage Pakistan from her anti India rhetoric. China, surely, could have achieved what they are looking for through fifth option of talks with India to seek security assurances instead of intimidating tactics.
China, with all the bravado of conceited leadership, faces dire consequences of her current multi front military overtures if it is escalated to next level. There are fair chances of convergence of global powers to use force to make China modify her political conduct. To avert such an action, China has to honour the international laws of seas, plus patch up with India by resolving the boundary issue. That happens to be the most sensible option for China to be pragmatic and seek possibilities by accepting the reality sans self perpetuating orchestrated narratives and medieval mindset.
China has to move away from their medieval mindset of the past and start afresh in their new inning as a valuable neighbours. Since it is China who chose to cross the line of civility in 1962 in pursuit of their vested interests, they need to undo the cartographic encroachment. To do that, China needs to acknowledge ‘One India’ policy wherein they have to simply recognize the sovereignty of India over areas as it existed on 27 October 1947. In return, China may be given full freedom to conduct her economic activities through their national highway 219 heretofore akin to an open border.
It would also be in Chinese interests to nudge Pakistan to vacate their occupation facilitating India providing unhindered transit rights to CPEC alignment through Gilgit-Baltistan. India in the new format would no longer be a threat to China thereby ensuring security of sea as well as land routes, their main political concern. India may also opt to join the CPEC band wagon which would act as a catalyst in paving way for its success. Pakistan would also benefit immensely and likely to be more stabilized with prospects of improved economy.
Besides above, there would be no issue of confrontation in the Indo-Pacific once China agrees to follow laws of the seas. It will be the biggest diplomatic achievement for China as well as rest of the world which possibly cannot be done through military force. It will be a win win situation for all the stake holders as everyone gets to benefit by such an approach. China will be the biggest beneficiary as she can now build on her economic expansion with cooperation of rest of the world.
Therefore, the contours of resolution as discussed above, if done, would be ideal though it sounds difficult to fathom the historical political intransigence and trust deficit. Political statesmanship with pragmatic approach is the most sensible way to seek possibilities to arrive at a mutually acceptable and legally correct solution. The first step which can be done without any hitch is both the countries pulling back to their mid April locations and force levels.
What is being discussed in the series of meetings at diplomatic and military levels is connotations linked to LAC and not the boundary. It suits the Chinese as they are looking at LAC to be converted into boundary as it is generally aligned as per their claims. Now that the gloves are off, it is probably the last window to sort out the boundary issue once for all. China in the given circumstance may be amenable due to prospects of economic strangulation in Indo-Pacific and Indian threat to CPEC.
Our focus should, therefore, be to discuss the Aksai Chin and not leave it at an interim solution to LAC, a proverbial ‘Fauri Ilaz’. The rallying of world opinion against China in backdrop of pandemic syndrome is unlikely to come by again easily. Accordingly, If we do not address the boundary issue now, then be prepared for yet another inimical visit by China again.
The sensibility of using force is certainly not the way to go in the contemporary geo political environment. It is the political economy that drives the national conduct which is function of cooperation and constructive competition and not confrontation. The Chinese top leadership has to decide on whether they want to be known in the history for making China a world power, or become reason of destruction of Chinese success story.
One who confronts would be isolated sooner, or later as the global group dynamics has perceptible political impact of strategic import in present times. Therefore, earlier nations believing in use of military force and political terrorism to achieve their objectives move away from such practices, better it would be for them. The ball is in Chinese court. Take it or leave it. India stands firm on frozen heights of Ladakh and blue waters of Indian Ocean to call Chinese bluff, if it still comes to that.