A superpower is an imperialist country which everywhere subjects other countries to its aggression, interference, control, subversion or plunder and strives for world hegemony,” said Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in a speech at the United Nations in 1974, when Mao Zedong was still alive. This was reiterated on other international platforms, too. Deng said if China ever turned into a superpower, “the people of the world should identify her social imperialism, expose it, oppose it and work together with the Chinese people to overthrow it”. However, President Xi Jinping, having secured the unassailable position as the ‘Chinese Supremo’ for life, seems to have dumped this vision for China. And his vision for the world, it seems, has little or no place for other countries.
China has crossed swords with anyone she has come across in the recent past. What explains China’s belligerent attitude? Is China testing its capacity to hold out all alone―while dealing with Taiwan, South China Sea, Hong Kong, and allegations of malpractices in international trade, allegations of spreading the Wuhan Virus and the India-China border, all at the same time? It seems to be an ideal time to carry out such an experiment as the rest of the world is reeling under the Covid-19 pandemic and its economic and social impact. It is possible that China also believes that the domestic politics of most democracies that have the muscle to contest China are in a splintered and divisive state, making the situation conducive for such an experiment. Viewed in this context, is the systematic escalation on the Sino-Indian border purely India-centric or is it part of an overall resetting of the world order by China?
In the face of the current situation, it is important to take a brief look at the background of the Sino-Indian border. The border between the two nations is a line agreed upon by both, demarcated on a common set of maps which are endorsed and authenticated by both sides. It is mutually demarcated on ground by erecting border pillars and wherever required, using distinct unambiguous geographical features such as rivers, watershed of mountain ranges etc. Land boundary demarcation is an elaborate joint exercise. In many cases, however, boundaries between countries are legacy agreements, some of which date back to more than a hundred years. Some of the legacy boundaries, when interpreted in the present times, in the light of greater degree of physical accessibility to areas that were earlier considered totally remote and inaccessible, availability of accurate global positioning systems could also give rise to ambiguities.
The Sino-Indian boundary can be classified into the eastern, central (middle) and the western sectors. According to India, the boundary is 3,488km including 523km of POK-China segment, 1,597km in the western segment (Ladakh), 545 km in the middle segment and 1,346km in the eastern segment. Shaksgam Valley, illegally ceded by Pakistan to China is 5,180 sq km.
The boundary in the eastern sector follows the McMahon line born out of the Simla Convention of July 3, 1914, an agreement between British India, Tibet and China. China, however, did not sign the agreement citing objection to Article 9 of the Convention which was about the boundary between inner and outer Tibet. It is also significant that along the same McMahon line, China settled its boundary with Burma in 1960 rechristening it as “The Burma-China Boundary Treaty of 1960”. In the eastern sector, China claims areas south of McMahon line based on so called “traditional boundaries”. In the middle sector, there is broad consensus, but dispute exists at four places. Post independence, in the western sector, the boundary was fixed along the Johnson line of 1865, with Aksai Chin on the Indian side, but not claiming northern areas near Shahidulla and Khotan.
The Chinese have never committed to a specific alignment in the western sector and have changed their stance a number of times. Border stand-offs in the western and eastern sectors have taken place with increasing frequency in the recent years. The scope of the stand-offs has also been rising. However, so far, the dispute settling mechanism has prevented any exchange of fire.
What explains the cause of the violent clash and the choice of Patrolling Point 14 on the Line of Actual Control close to where the Galwan River meets the Shyok River, for the clash on the night of June 15? This segment has not witnessed disputes in the past. The newly constructed Darbuk-Shyok-DBO road on the Indian side runs close to the LAC at this point. The Indian post at DBO is at an aerial distance of just about 10km from the Karakoram Pass. After making Ladakh a Union territory, voices have been raised about a relook at Gilgit-Baltistan. This changed scenario, combined with the DBO road which runs well inside the Indian territory has changed the dynamics of threat perception in the areas of Karakoram, Gilgit-Baltistan and even the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. From China’s perspective, this area has become very crucial and had to be brought under the ambit of disputed areas and an opportunity was created making it appear as if it presented itself. Regarding the incident itself, it is not appropriate to comment on the incident at this stage. Both sides seem to have suffered high causalities. While saluting our brave heroes, one finds it difficult not to condemn the apparent urge on the part of some people to treat such incidents like T20 contests. How can there be a tit-for-tat response on the part of the Army or the government just because the electronic media and ‘experts’ crave it?
An India-China armed conflict, even under the present heightened tension appears most unlikely. But China can be expected to employ every possible trick, falling just short of war. The most dangerous of such tricks would be for China to do something short of war, for which no ‘short of war’ counter exists. Occupation of important unoccupied Indian territory will fall into this category. Expect China to even activate the Arunachal sector at a suitable time as a subset of the present imbroglio. There is nothing stopping India from taking the initiative of activating Arunachal border, if any advantage is perceived, by undertaking such an action.
Looking at how far we have moved on the escalation process, it is almost certain that it’s a long haul ahead. Considering the mood prevailing around the world and our capabilities, India is in a position to hold fast militarily and make China blink first. All that is required is a united domestic approach. We can put aside our differences for the time being, to be sorted out after we chase the Dragon away.
The author is a former deputy chief of Army.