China’s Game of Territorial Claims
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Issue Vol. 30.3 Jul-Sep 2015 | Date : 12 Oct , 2015

Self-effacing Arguments

In some Indian discourses, there is a hint of growing tolerance, if not cognition, of Beijing’s territorial claims. Unless balanced, this is a dangerous trend. It needs to be appreciated that point to point, and shorn of the wariness that the PRC’s economic and military power instils among other stakeholders, India’s case is as true, if not stronger, than that of the PRC. In fact, many of the Beijing’s pronouncements may well be turned to New Delhi’s favour. Just two examples of the notions which are at the core of the PRC’s claims would clarify this aspect.

The British were keen for Imperial China to take over much of North-East Ladakh just to keep the Russians out…

One, the PRC’s stance that ‘the boundaries were drawn by imperialist powers for their own rather than the host nation’s concerns and therefore cannot be acceptable to a free nation’ (sic), could also be turned to bolster India’s case. It is a fact that Chinese imperialists unilaterally claimed sovereign rights over the Kun Lun – Karakoram Region without any concern for the native Tibetan and Turkic nations, just as the British imperialists did to Indians. In fact, the British were keen for Imperial China to take over much of North-East Ladakh just to keep the Russians out. China, however, Britain deliberately chose to leave the matter vague for expansive interpretations when it suited her. Repudiation of the request made by the British Indian Government in 1848 to delineate the Indo-Tibet Border was only a ploy to that end. At that time, the Chinese Government has replied that “since the territory has ancient frontiers, it was needless to establish any other”. It was after China refused to respond to the call that the British Indian Government had to draw its territorial limits according to the Ardagh-Johnson Line, or its more convenient version, the McCartney-MacDonald Line. That the British kept changing their mind on these alignments as it suited them, actually turns China’s pretentious anti-imperialist argument in India’s favour. India, rather than China, had then been a victim of British colonialism, and now she is a target of China’s expansionism.

The fact is that the Westphalian concept of contiguous and continuous territorial boundary alignments in European model could not apply to Asia. Existence of vast unliveable frontier-lands between nation-societies resulted in such areas remaining as ‘every-man’s land’, so to say. Periodically, some stretches of these lands had been traversed by traders who bought safety by paying some tax to certain overlords who dominated the fringes of such lands. China’s unilateral claim over these ‘every-man’s lands’ as her sovereign territory, after shying away from the offer of mutually acceptable delineation and then keeping mum for hundred years after the British Government in India went ahead to delineate the boundary line, which has now been inherited by independent India, defies justification.

Many may believe that India’s post-Independence delineation of the Ladakh-Tibet Border had been ambitious and unilateral…

Two, the PRC’s claim over the Tawang Tract and by default, most of Arunachal Pradesh, is sought to be justified by the prevalence of a practice in which the Buddhist estates paid religious contribution or tribute in some form or the other to the Potala Palace in Lhasa which headquartered the seat of Buddhism – a religion with its roots in India. Truly, Beijing’s argument is a specious one because religious endowments have been, and continue to be, exchanged across national boundaries – by the followers of Vatican, Grand Mosques and similar religions institutions, for example – without mixing religious superintendence with sovereign functions. In any case, the matter is dead after the PRC invaded Tibet, toppling the religious seat in the process, then desecrating it during the ‘Cultural Revolution’ and finally destroying the institution of Dalai Lama and the Buddhist nationality. Besides of course, in the past, Tibetan marauders had been occasionally foraying into Indian North-East to plunder, but such dominations do not qualify for sovereignty. International borders are fundamentally defined by geographical features and societal construct, not merely by religious affiliations or plundering quests, after all.

As mentioned earlier, the CCP’s territorial claims are copied from the Guomintang government’s quixotic vision, which had been depicted in the form of a map published in 1927 and in which some parts of Asia had been left out (pun intended) of the grand vision of China’s sovereign domain. Point to note is that at that time the Guomintang Party government was in control of only some parts of China – it was a lame and fractured rule. There is, therefore, no reason to take that map, produced by a delusionary government of questionable legitimacy, seriously.

Conversely, an earlier map published in 1917, after the McMahon Line had been drawn under the Shimla Agreement of 1914, shows the Indo-Tibet Boundary aligned exactly as it is shown in Indian maps. So where does partisan interpretation of history, recorded under motives debatable, may finally rest, how far back in time would Beijing go? By analogy, why should New Delhi not revive her possessions over parts of Tibet which she chose to forego after independence? Indeed, why should not Tibet or Mongolia lay claims upon China based on their control over parts of imperial China?

It would unwise for India to venture into any kind of military conflict to arrest the existing or future encroachments…

Arguments can go on in endless circles. In international politicking, facts are construed in ‘grey-scale’ and interpretations and arguments may be turned in any way. But invariably, the outcome is decided not by logic or sentiments but, as we witness on daily basis, by the backing of brute power. Eating grass to buy guns may not be such a ludicrous idea after all – Mao’s China did just that to be where it is now! That is the lesson to be imbibed.

Having discussed the environmental determinants which influence the course of Beijing’s policy on what she believes to be her bounden duty of reclamation of ‘lost territories’ – a promise that the rest of the neighbourhood views as blatant expansionism. We may now think of ‘living’ with the Indo-Tibet Border issue.

Living with a Problem

If so far New Delhi had been stoic in playing down Beijing’s growing assertiveness in the banal hope that the menace will get reconciled, recently it had gone a step further by explaining away PRC’s case – the theme being ‘the differing perceptions of the LAC’. Apparently influenced by Beijing’s ruse, this theme is an escapist urge and an invitation to more torment. Of course, both India and the PRC know exactly how the LAC runs.

Many may believe that India’s post-Independence delineation of the Ladakh-Tibet Border had been ambitious and unilateral. They, therefore, acquiesce with a ‘give (what meat the PRC takes)-and-take (what residue the PRC may leave)’ arrangement and settle the issue once for all, on the same line as the thought of ‘regularising’ as International Border (IB), the Line of Control with Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. That attitude having been India’s undoing over the centuries past, wisdom suggests that such simplistic, pacifist ideas are to be summarily jettisoned. In fact, looking at the post-independence situation and Beijing’s predatory instincts, it is amply clear that New Delhi really had no better option than what it did to delineate her territory. Indeed, the LAC of today owes much to the so called ‘Forward Policy’ which prevented, albeit at the cost of our sacrificial soldiery, the PRC from gobbling up the entire Central Ladakh and much of Arunachal Pradesh. Today, when India has much of what is her own territory, why alter the status quo and either cede more or reward the PRC with the gains of its aggression?

It would take up to a decade or so of defence build up just to be able to stonewall the PRC from its stratagem of ‘creeping encroachment’…

There is no hope of a resolution of the India-PRC border dispute unless it is grossly in favour of China. It would, therefore, be wise for India to learn to live with the problem – as indeed she does with many other issues – and not be in hurry to escape from it. Learning that trick from Vietnam, China’s ever distressed yet stable neighbour, may help. Thus while well considered economic and industrial cooperation must flower, a resolve not to permit territorial usurpation must also be made clear. To do so in the context of China’s cultural orientation, India’s debilitated military capability must be built up – and very soon.

Notwithstanding the brave front recently put up by the Indian border forces in face of PLA’s intimidation, it would be unwise for India to venture into any kind of military conflict to arrest the existing or future encroachments. Given the PLA’s tradition of building up overwhelming operational and logistic superiority before committing to even minor engagements, it is certain that such encroachments are backed up by deliberate preparations that India may match only through build up at least a corps-size, fully balanced force, with more forces ready at the jumping board should matters escalate. It may take India many years of full throttle build up to marshal that kind of force-level and its attendant logistics. The Government has placed itself in this situation after decades of de-prioritising military preparedness, its repudiation of saner counsel being that, “There will be no war with China”. A true, if unfortunate, statement because in any case, India may not have the capacity to deter the PLA in its adventurism should the latter decide to do so.

It would take up to a decade or so of defence build up just to be able to stonewall the PRC from its stratagem of ‘creeping encroachment’. Meanwhile, astute diplomacy would have to manage the situation as best it can be. To that end, it may be the time to clarify to Beijing that the post-1962 LAC and the alignment of the Indo-Tibet Border are two separate matters. The former is a fall out of deliberate military aggression while the latter is dictated by geography and past usage. These two matters have to be resolved in exclusivity. The dividend of pushing the LAC further into India would, therefore, be but illusionary. Further, we may adopt China’s own stance vis-a-vis its European, Russian and Japanese tormentors of the 19th and 20th centuries to articulate that any territorial imposition that is forced upon India under duress by the communist-imperialist regime will not be acceptable and that it would remain a ‘live’ issue, to be rectified in the future as and when India’s ‘time is ripe’.

Maybe at one time, some kind of mutual ‘give-and-take’ – more agreeable than China’s propensity of ‘take-and-take’ – might be arrived at, and that would settle the territorial manoeuvres. Build up of military power would bring that time sooner.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Lt Gen Gautam Banerjee

former Commandant Officers Training Academy, Chennai.

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