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.”
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 All the old maps were withdrawn and the depiction of Indian boundaries in the old way became illegal.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.
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)