The genesis of the current standoff with China in Ladakh can be traced to the absence of a formal historical delineation of borders between India and China and differing perceptions held by these two great civilizations. While India contends that China claims the disputed territory based on the Chinese imperial control in the past, the Chinese argue that Indian claims are a result of the colonial control over this region during the British Raj.
British cartographic interests in the region date back to the period of the Great Game in the late 19th century when British India’s foreign policy was obsessed with possible southward Russian expansionism. The British sought strategic depth in the north and proposed different lines of demarcation: the Ardagh-Johnson Line being more east, and the McCartney-MacDonald Line more westward. This vacillation was, according to Neville Maxwell, an outcome of the great Indian dilemma of a ‘forward’ or more ‘moderate’ policy, i.e. manning the frontiers in the inhospitable cold desert of Aksai Chin or stationing border troops well inside the accepted frontier.
The Chinese sought to buttress their claims on Aksai Chin based on the Macartney-MacDonald line (One of the proposed territorial borderlines according to which Aksai Chin was a part of the Chinese territory), whereas Prime Minister Nehru, upon independence, proclaimed that Aksai Chin was, without doubt, a part of the Indian Union as distinguished by the Ardagh-Johnson Line (The disputed region of Aksai Chin was placed within the Kashmiri jurisdiction and thus became a part of the Indian territory). In the early 1950s, the Chinese never publicly refuted claims made by Nehru although the official map of China illustrated a very distinct picture from what the Chinese Premier Zhou En Lai wished to portray. In 1954, when the Panchsheel (Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence) was signed, the Chinese accepted a frontier map presented by India. In 1957, alarm bells were set ringing with news of China having built a highway connecting Tibet with Xinjiang through Aksai Chin. The Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai bonhomie received a further setback when India welcomed the Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama and his followers in 1959 which perturbed the Chinese leadership. Thereafter, friction on the border continually escalated leading to the Sino-Indian War of 1962.
In a sharp departure from the past decade, in 1961 India chose to change its moderate border policy, i.e. remaining where they were currently placed and carrying out military functions, and adopted the Forward Policy, “which aimed at raising the military outposts in areas claimed by the Chinese and launching aggressive patrols.” The motive behind adopting this policy was to recover the Indian territories being occupied by the Chinese at the time. The discovery of construction of the Chinese road through Aksai Chin in 1957 may have prompted Nehru to reassess the border policy and act before India lost complete control over the disputed territories. Accordingly, India adopted a much more aggressive policy to ensure the maintenance of its territorial sovereignty, however, this move was viewed by China as an expansionist move towards Tibet.
The Forward Policy seems to have been adopted on some very strong (also wrong) beliefs/ perceptions about the Chinese government. According to extracts available from the classified Henderson-Brooks’ Report, “The then Army Headquarters and IB Director, believed that China wouldn’t retaliate the Indian troops who were directed to claim the Indian territory occupied by the Chinese because they were dealing with more important issues at the time and also publicly made clear that they did not want war with India”. Neville Maxwell argues that this policy was questioned by the Western Command, who tried to warn the Centre about India’s military incapacity to implement such a policy and claimed that India would be defeated if it were implemented. Despite the warning, the Forward Policy was implemented, and the outcome of the policy was the Sino-Indian War, that lasted more than 30 days till the Indian forces were decimated both in NEFA and Ladakh. Bertil Lintner, in a recent book, refutes Maxwell’s claim that it was Nehru’s misplaced Forward Policy that led to the clash; on the other hand, he argues that it was asylum to the Dalai Lama that sowed the seeds of the conflict three years later.
Suitably chastised, “India renounced the Forward Policy and the de-facto borders stabilized along the Line of Actual Control (a loose demarcation of the disputed territory).” The Prime Minister and his government were majorly criticized and held responsible for failing to foresee the possibility of Chinese aggression. The two nations came to respect the Line of Actual Control as the de facto border. However, as mentioned earlier, perceptions continued to differ over territory claimed by India and China. While India sought to regard the Ceasefire Line of 1962 as the LAC, the Chinese till date perceive the 1959 claim line as their alignment of the LAC.
The changed Indian Outlook
The shocking debacle in 1962 led the Indian establishment to embark on steady militarization and modernization of the Armed Forces. Buoyed by the success in the 1965 Indo-Pak War, the Indian Army under Major General Sagat Singh gave the Chinese a ‘bloody nose’ in the 1967 NathuLa standoff. On the other hand, to prevent recurrence of such incidents from taking place again “military measures were initiated to demonstrate commitment without risking full-scale war, while diplomatic settlements were pursued to the extent that domestic opposition could be contained.” The thaw in Sino-Indian relations came in 1988 with Rajiv Gandhi’s visit in 1988, ironically in the aftermath of the 1986 Sumdorong Chu incident when the two armies were locked in a tense standoff. Notwithstanding attempts to resolve the border question over the past three decades, Chinese intransigence has blocked any effective settlement. All this while, the Chinese dragon has strategically followed an expansionist ‘salami-slicing’ strategy to stealthily annex Indian territory and change the status-quo inch by inch, leading to often protracted standoffs. India has, in the past decade, made impressive infrastructure developments in terms of strategic roads and advanced landing strips (ALS) in both Ladakh and Arunachal. One of these, the recently constructed Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) road, is also seminal to the present standoff.
Possibility of an enduring solution?
Disengagement and de-escalation and return to status quo ante of April 2020 seem to be the most enduring diplomatic solution to the present crisis. Every inch of the Indian territory ought to be guarded aggressively and the ‘forward-moderate’ dilemma, alluded to by Maxwell, must be settled. Territorial sovereignty lies at the heart of the concept of modern Weberian State and thus we cannot fight shy of sacrifice to uphold its integrity. The clash at Galwan is a good case in point.
The Chinese continue to view border relations with India through a strategic prism and prolonged delays in any enduring settlement are part of a well-thought-out strategy to negotiate from a position of increasing strength. On the other hand, India has, historically, made several attempts to try and ameliorate its relations with China. It is well-nigh time to demonstrate a new-found resolve and strategic intent in our engagement with the Chinese.
Amisha Singh is a second-year student at Ashoka University, currently pursuing her major in Politics, Philosophy and Economics, with a passion for law.