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Updated: April 27, 2013 05:03 IST

Lesson from an unsettled boundary

Manoj Joshi
Comment (19)   ·   print   ·   T  T  

The reality is that the Line of Actual Control between India and China is notional and has not been put down on any mutually agreed map

In 1950, the Survey of India issued a map of India showing the political divisions of the new republic. While the border with Pakistan was defined as it is now, including the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir area, the borders with China were depicted differently. In the east, the McMahon Line was shown as the border, except in its eastern extremity, the Tirap subdivision, where the border was shown as “undefined.” In the Central sector of what is now Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh and the eastern part of Jammu & Kashmir, including Aksai Chin, the boundary was depicted merely by a colour wash and denoted as “boundary undefined.”

Unilateral act

In March 1954, the Union Cabinet met and decided to unilaterally define the border of India with China. The colour wash was replaced by a hard line, and the Survey of India issued a new map, which depicts the borders as we know them today. All the old maps were withdrawn and the depiction of Indian boundaries in the old way became illegal. Indeed, if you seek out the White Paper on Indian States of 1948 and 1950 in the Parliament library, you will find that the maps have been removed because they too showed the border as being “undefined” in the Central and Western sectors.

What was the government up to? Did it seriously think it could get away with such a sleight of hand? Or was there a design that will become apparent when the papers of the period are declassified? Not surprisingly, the other party, the People’s Republic of China, was not amused and, in any case, there are enough copies of the old documents and maps across the world today to bring out the uncomfortable truth that the boundaries of India in these regions were unilaterally defined by the Government of India, rather than through negotiation and discussions with China.

It is not as though the Chinese have a particularly good case when it comes to their western boundary in Tibet. The record shows that the Chinese empire was unclear as to its western extremities, and rejected repeated British attempts to settle the border. The problem in the Aksai Chin region was further compounded by the fact that this was an uninhabited high-altitude desert, with few markers that could decide the case in favour of one country or the other. But there was cause for the two countries to sit down and negotiate a mutually acceptable boundary. This as we know was not to be and, since then, the process has gone through needless tension and conflict.

In the initial period, India’s focus was on the McMahon Line which defines the boundary with China in what is now Arunachal Pradesh. It tended to play down the issue of Aksai Chin because it was a remote area and of little strategic interest to India. But for China, the area was vital. Indeed, according to John W. Garver, it was “essential to Chinese control of western Tibet and very important to its control of all of Tibet.” In other words, in contrast to India’s legalistic and nationalistic claims over the region, for China, control over Aksai Chin had a geopolitical imperative.

For this reason, it entered the area, built a road through it and undertook a policy to expand westward to ensure that the road was secure. India woke up to the issue late and when it sought to confront the Chinese through its forward policy in 1961, it was already too late. And the 1962 war only saw a further Chinese advance westward which led to almost the entire Galwan River coming under the Chinese control.

We can only speculate on the causes of their present westward shift in the Daulat Beg Oldi area. But one thing is clear: the central locomotive of Chinese policy remains Tibet. Despite massive investments in the region, large numbers of Tibetans remain disaffected. No country in the world, including India, recognises Tibet as being a disputed territory yet, for two reasons. The Chinese constantly seek reassurance from New Delhi about its intentions. First, because of the past support that Tibetan separatist guerrillas got from the U.S. and India, and second, because of the presence of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile in India. Despite the massive growth of Chinese power, their insecurities remain high. In great measure, they are due to Beijing’s own heavy-handed policies and only China can resolve the issues through accommodation and compromise with its own people. But not untypical of governments, Beijing seeks to deflect the blame of its own shortcomings on outsiders.

There could be other drivers of the tension as well. In the past five years, the Chinese have been generally assertive across their periphery and this could well be an outcome of policy decisions taken by the top military and political leadership of the country or, as some speculate, because of an inner-party conflict. Exaggerated Chinese maritime boundary claims have brought them into conflict with the ASEAN countries, principally the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia. A separate order of tension has arisen with Japan over the Senkaku islands in the East China Sea. In the case of India, an important initiative to resolve the border dispute through Special Representatives has been allowed to run aground.

Another possible explanation for the Chinese behaviour could be the steps India is taking with regard to its military on its borders with China. India’s border infrastructure and military modernisation schemes have been delayed by decades. But in recent years, there have been signs that New Delhi may be getting its act together. In any case, the cumulative impact of the huge defence expenditures since 2000 is beginning to show in terms of better border connectivity and modernisation programmes. This momentum could see Indian forces’ confrontation with China become even stronger when you take into account new manpower and equipment such as mountain artillery, attack helicopters, missiles and rocket artillery.

Overlapping claims

Even so, it would be hazardous to speak definitively about Chinese motivations. After being lambasted by the Indian media for occupying “Indian territory,” the Chinese might be concerned about losing face with a hasty retreat. The fact of the matter is that the boundary in the region is defined merely by a notional Line of Actual Control, which is neither put down on mutually agreed maps, let alone defined in a document through clearly laid out geographical features. While both sides accept most of the LAC and respect it, there are some nine points where there are overlapping claims and both sides patrol up to the LAC, as they understand it. In such circumstances, the Chinese could well withdraw after a decent interval.

This more benign interpretation of Chinese behaviour is also in tune with the statements that the new leadership in Beijing has been making. As has been noted, following his meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the sidelines of the BRICS conference in Durban, the new supremo of China, Xi Jinping, was quoted in the Chinese media as saying that Beijing regarded its ties with New Delhi as “one of the most important bilateral relationships.” Belying the belief that the Chinese were dragging their feet on the border issue, Mr. Xi declared that the Special Representative mechanism should strive for “a fair, rational solution framework acceptable to both sides as soon as possible.” This last sentence is significant because a week earlier, he was quoted as making the standard formulation that the border problem “is a complex issue left from history and solving the issue won’t be easy.”

2013 is not 1962 and the Indian media and politicians should not behave as though it was, by needlessly raising the decibel level and trying to push the government to adopt a hawkish course on the border. But what the recent controversy does tell us is unsettled borders are not good for two neighbours because they can so easily become the cause of a conflict that neither may be seeking.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)

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Smacks of our typical 'chalta hai' attitude. Not at all surprised if
this uncomfortable truth emerges. I guess someday we'll come to know
that The Three Idiots was partially shot in China and we now owe them
some money for film shooting!

Well done GoI, Keep up with this attitude and we'll continue to
perpetuate the atrocious quality of work that we are infamous for.

from:  sriram
Posted on: Apr 27, 2013 at 18:15 IST

Indian politicians and the fellow patriots can thump the chest and make a song and dance to be impressive to the people in the country, receiving some political capital, while the bitter reality is that nothing India can do militarily in such a circumstance. Diplomatic initiatives such as mutual talks, failing that, bringing in pressure upon China by getting the international community on side may be the other option. But, are there many willing nations to come on India side is questionable as much of the world politics is driven by expediency than ethics or morals!? In a comparative sense, to many, China is more important than India in many ways. So back to the squire one, negotiate, negotiate and negotiate more!!

from:  Saratchandran
Posted on: Apr 27, 2013 at 17:07 IST

All the causes of Chinese behavior listed in this article might be valid. After decades of peaceful growth, China has now started to flex its muscles. China already has had disputes with SE Asian countries and Japan. Now, it might just want to test the waters in the case of India. See how does the Indian state react.
This is not the first time PLA has made incursions. But, setting up tents in a disputed area is condemnable. This shows Chinese donot have high regards for Indian responses. They might have figured out the maximum extent of India's protests.

from:  Mukut Ray
Posted on: Apr 27, 2013 at 16:17 IST

There is no line to cross or check. Then why the govt of India is
saying the Chinese is 19 KM into this side? It is ridiculous. If there
is no line then anybody can move still further. Either this side or
that side. What will stop Indian Military from marching 20KM towards
the other side? Nothing and no one. So, this issue should not have
been published for the so called patriotic people to express their
responses in an agitated manner. They do not send their sons into army.

from:  SV ALAPAD
Posted on: Apr 27, 2013 at 14:05 IST

The first knowledgeable article I have come across about this latest
disruption in NE Ladakh. India's unilateral cartographical moves in the
50s were ill advised, appalling and unjustified. No wonder we have
difficulty sorting out a problem as our case rests on a shaky
foundation.

from:  Romesh Bhattacharji
Posted on: Apr 27, 2013 at 12:36 IST

Extremely well written and an impartial view. The successive governments of India have shown a distinct lack of strategy, vision and are all guilty of stupidity. The border MUST be settled NOW through diplomacy and accommodation. It is not a choice but an imperative. Otherwise, some years down the line we may have to pay heavily. If a border whose actual definition does not exist, and remains a cause for tension between two giants, the ultimate scenario can only be negative for the region. Only Pakistanis will be pleased by the outcome.

from:  Manjit Sahota
Posted on: Apr 27, 2013 at 11:48 IST

The article looks written in a fair and objective cmanner. But Chinese are veterans in concealing their
acual intentions . After the joint proclamation of Panchsheel agreement China occupied Tibet and made void of the border agreement between Tibet and India . As Hitler advocated for the large population of Germany more territories from his neighbours China is also in expansionist mood . Therefore it is not in peace with any of his neighbours.Taking on the China singly will be difficult but a combined effort from its preipheral states will sober China.

from:  A.Thirugnanasambantham
Posted on: Apr 27, 2013 at 10:40 IST

"Removed", meaning destroyed? These are the official maps attached to
the White Papers published in July 1948 and February 1950 by the
Government of India's Ministry of States, headed, incidentally, by
Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, under the authority of India's Surveyor
General G.F.Heaney which give them the legal status to determine the
extent of the State of Kashmir as stipulated in Entry 15 in the First
Schedule of the Constitution on India. Incredible! It only shows that
the Government of India was hand in glove with the Government of
China and had been perpetrating crimes against India. I knew that the
other maps published by the Survey of India had been destroyed, but
the alleged destruction of these precious maps is news to me. The
Perpetrators of this crime should be exposed and denounced. However,
the Constitution of India is sacrosanct and supreme notwithstanding
the blatant illegal destruction of priceless evidence and the
publication of the bogus and fraudulent map in 1954!

from:  P.V.Ravi Chandran
Posted on: Apr 27, 2013 at 09:23 IST

A well explained article. I support that the representative level
delegations of India & China should meet and find an amicable solution
to this stalemate. Though the idea to discuss the Line of Actual Control
palatable to both countries may also be propounded.

from:  Karan
Posted on: Apr 27, 2013 at 09:23 IST

The Chinese are very clear no new land is being made and that every
inch is most valuable. They know MANY borders are not defined and
hence will fight to ensure they are arbitrarily defined in China's
favor. The truth is immaterial to them, they know what they want: land
and a good name and to be seen not as some 'friend' but as a
threatening power.
They are amazed India does not take back land from Pakistan and
Bangladesh like they took back Hong Kong, etc. They told UK very
clearly and repeatedly that HK's prosperity was the result of CHINESE
work and had nothing to do with UK when UK said how it had made HK
rich.

from:  bharati
Posted on: Apr 27, 2013 at 09:10 IST

if the border(a imaginative compound wall)is not fully defined ,why
all the media making headline about the chinese incursion. i am to
assume both army can go on either side, make a tent and stay as many
days as they wish for sight seeing. why did not happen all these
years. the truth is the chinese know they can needle india at any time
to quarantine any move that india takes to keep the chinese in check
along with japan and america.they will never solve the border problem
with india. the fire keeps on glowing, at times they add oil to it.the
time will come when india become econamicaly and militarily strong
than china or the final war with china that will unite all the indians.

from:  muthu
Posted on: Apr 27, 2013 at 08:51 IST

The article makes it clear that the LAC is an unsettled border between India and China from
1950 to date and it would be unwise on the part of India to try to be hawkish. It is also clear
that China is intent upon the continued status of the unsettled nature of the LAC to derive as
much mileage as possible. This status seems to continue from the days of the British Raj in
India. Therefore the obvious inference is that China basks in the unsettled nature of the LAC.
Under the circumstances there appears to be no point in relying on fruitful border negotiations. It is doubtful that China being conscious of its military might will ever take a flexible stand in negotiations. A China rearing for aggressive expansionistic border strikes could only be reined in by world forums or to put it cynically, another word war.

from:  G.Rajaram.
Posted on: Apr 27, 2013 at 08:36 IST

One wonders why Indian analysts always pander to Chinese sentiments. Notice:
1. Mr. Joshi tells us about the unilateral act of Indian cabinet, but no hint of Chinese behavior at that time is given. What did China do before that?
2. He tells that LoC is not defined, it is also clear that status-qua is well known to all. So the act of Chinese disturbing that status-qua is the issue at the moment and not the undefined LoC.
3. When Chinese have disturbed the status-qua, which is against the spirit of mutual trust, why is he making a case to give face-saving time to Chinese? Is there a possibility that his advocated self-respectless patience may finally strengthen Chinese claim till the point they have advanced?
4. Could it be a deliberate attempt by China to show the world that they can browbeat India, which might be part of their diplomacy to build a super-power image?
5. Could it be a lesson to Indians that they should be submissive and patient with China? Is Mr. Joshi helping them?

from:  R. Dhankar
Posted on: Apr 27, 2013 at 08:21 IST

Offers for delineation of the Tibet-Sinkiang-Ladakh border was made as early as 1846 when Cunningham and Agnew were appointed Boundary Commissioners. This offer was repeated in 1899 by Macdonald to China and came up also at the Simla Conference in 1914, when after signing the document, China repudiated it (and its Ambassador Plenipotentiary). It came up again in the 1920s/30s but to no avail. China did not either expressly accept or repudiate the proposals. Even the Line of Actual Control has been shifting, from what it was before China built the Sinkiang-Tibet road to what it was in 1954, then in 1959 and finally in 1962. Why don't they just use GPS equipment at least to mark out the current Line of Actual Control and then sort out the policy and principles of border definition?

from:  Prosenjit Das Gupta
Posted on: Apr 27, 2013 at 08:17 IST

The current incursion by China should not be looked at in isolation. There is a pattern to China's behaviour with respect to India (and other neighbours too). The extreme timidity shown by our leaders in dealing with China (and even Pakistan) has emboldened it, already far more powerful than us both economically and militarily, to toy with us even while mouthing inane platitudes of neo Panch Sheel. It is relentlessly and incrementally occupying our territories whether in the eastern or western sectors of the LAC. Its covert transfer of WMDs such as nuclear weapons and missiles to Pakistan is only to threaten us and confine us within a narrow South Asia. Its overt policy of 'String of Pearls' is the second component of the same containment policy. If anybody has to therefore suggest 'restraint', it must be to China and it is amusing when such advice is gratuitously thrust on India by our own national newspapers. If India cannot afford a war, so is China. Let us show spine for a change.

from:  Subramanyam Sridharan
Posted on: Apr 27, 2013 at 08:15 IST

Whatever the merits of the author's arguments, it is an unpleasant
surprise to see such behavior from the Chinese, 5 decades after the
1962 war. It is high time both sides got together to resolve the
boundary question once and for all. In these days of satellite imagery
and pin-point surveys, this should not be an impossible undertaking.It
is obvious that the Chinese military, like those of our neighbor
Pakistan, seeks to retain its power & privilege by periodically
stoking boundary confrontations with neighbors. Political leaders from
both countries must thus solver the boundary question without further
delay.

from:  CS Venkat
Posted on: Apr 27, 2013 at 03:25 IST

Well exposing article indeed. Our media and general public tend to fall in frightening mentality for all issues with China. Our past lost in war could be causing us this. China is not undergrown to depromote relationship with India and prompt a war with it's only competitive force in this world. Let the responsible people to decide on stand required as of now. No need to be panic. Another Sino-Indian war will be nothing more than the begining of WW-III. It will not happen in near future!!

from:  PRakash Rudhran
Posted on: Apr 27, 2013 at 02:53 IST

Mr. Xi Jinping alleged to have said that " “is a complex issue left from
history and solving the issue won’t be easy.” He is right. Then how come
MANOJ JOSHI, the writer, can claim that "2013 is not 1962 and the Indian
media and politicians should not behave as though it was, by needlessly
raising the decibel level and trying to push the government to adopt a
hawkish course on the border." With Panch Sheel in operation, the
Chinese launched an attack on India in 1962. Why?

from:  Dr. G. Satayanarayana
Posted on: Apr 27, 2013 at 02:19 IST

Thoughtful and thought-provoking piece. Provides interesting historical context.

from:  Sanghavi
Posted on: Apr 27, 2013 at 02:03 IST
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