Troops from India and China have clashed this year in Ladakh and North Sikkim at the border between the two countries. Although there are immediate reasons for the clash, the deeper causes of India’s border disputes with both China and Pakistan are its post-independence historic blunders. India has catastrophically failed to establish, delineate and demarcate its boundaries when it was in a position to do so.
Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Indian prime minister after independence in 1947, was a man of the leftist mold and so were many of his confidantes. They ignored reports of Chinese atrocities and progressive occupation of Tibet sent by Sumal Sinha, the Indian consul general in Lhasa, and Apa Pant, the dewan, the de facto prime minister, of the Himalayan kingdom of Sikkim, which at that time was a protectorate and is now a state of India.
Han and Hindu Nationalism Come Face to Face
Two influential Indians emerge with much discredit. One is V.K. Krishna Menon, India’s defense minister from 1957 to 1962, who resolutely maintained that India had nothing to fear from China. The other is K.M. Panikkar, India’s ambassador to China from 1950 to 1952, whose advice “proved to be unwise.” Panikkar persuaded Nehru to recognize China’s sovereignty over Tibet when Mao Zedong’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) took over this de facto independent buffer state in October 1950. The historian T.R. Ghodbole records that Panikkar “advised Nehru not to raise the border issue” with China as the price for accepting the conquest of Tibet.
One Indian leader shines in contrast. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, India’s first home minister and Nehru’s deputy, was prescient about the Chinese threat. He wrote a now well-known letter, to the prime minister, calling Chinese action “little short of perfidy.” Patel, a Gandhian from the right of the Indian National Congress party, argued that Chinese irredentism and communist imperialism were “ten times more dangerous” than Western expansionism or imperialism because it wore “a cloak of ideology.” The wise home minister died soon after writing this letter. Now, Indian policy was firmly in the hands of leftist ideologues who failed to take any of the steps he advocated to safeguard the country’s security interests.
Misunderstanding China and Abandoning Tibet
Nehru soon embarked on his misconceived policy of non-alignment. He wanted to be the moral leader of the Third World who pioneered a policy of peace in contrast to the militaristic policies of imperial powers. As a result, India failed to build up its own capabilities to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Nehru forgot to heed the Roman doctrine that if “you want peace, be prepared for war; therefore, let him who desires peace get ready for war.” He also forgot the ancient Indian strategist Chanakya who postulated that “every neighbor is a potential enemy and an enemy’s enemy is a friend.”
It was this complete absence of strategic thinking that led to the debacle in Tibet in 1950. Even as China was building up its strength and repudiating so-called unequal treaties imposed by imperial powers, Nehru was content to swan around on the world stage as a moral, peaceful beacon for the world. It was this naive thinking that led the country to take the issue of Kashmir to the United Nations and fail to press home its military advantage in 1948. Back then, India was in a position to claim the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir, including the parts that China now controls.
India failed to understand China’s worldview. Henry Kissinger, the former US secretary of state under President Richard Nixon, had his finger on the Chinese pulse in his book, “World Order.” He observes that China has considered itself as “the sole sovereign government of the world’ since its unification in 221 BC. It did not consider other monarchs as equal. They were mere “pupils in the art of governance, striving towards civilization.” The Chinese emperor commanded “all under heaven,” tianxia in Chinese parlance. China forms the central, civilized part, “the Middle Kingdom” of tianxia. It is supposed to inspire and uplift the rest of humanity.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is the son of an ardent Maoist. Like Mao, he has emerged as a modern-day Chinese emperor. Xi has reintroduced this idea of tianxia. His first act when he became the leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 2012 was to visit the Museum of Revolution. There he declared that China was ready to be a world leader “because of its 5,000-year-old history, the CCP’s 95-year historical struggle and the 38-year development miracle of reform.” This is the danger that Patel foresaw but Nehru did not.
In 1950, India could have prevented the Chinese takeover of Tibet. It could have strengthened its garrison in Lhasa instead of withdrawing its troops, used its air force and supported the poorly equipped Tibetan forces. China was isolated internationally in the 1950s. The Western powers were anti-communist and did not like Chinese interference in Vietnam. China’s relations with the Soviet Union spiraled downward after 1955. India failed to build a coalition against China even when the West had shown interest in supporting the Tibetans. Indeed, as Atul Singh, Glenn Carle and Vikram Sood record in a detailed article on Fair Observer, India inexplicably turned down a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council.
Once China conquered Tibet, it was at India’s doorstep. In the 1950s, it stealthily took over 37,244 square kilometers of Aksai Chin and built a road connecting southern Tibet to Xinjiang. It also started claiming large chunks of Indian territory such as Arunachal Pradesh and parts of Ladakh. Indeed, the Chinese claim line extends right up to the plains of Assam.
Singh, Carle and Sood have examined in some detail the various boundaries the British drew as their boundary with the Qing. China was in turmoil after its revolution of 1911-12 and Tibet was de facto independent. It was a buffer state where the British had many strategic assets, which India inherited but soon gave up to China. Released files of the Central Intelligence Agency reveal the extent of Nehru’s capitulation to Mao. India signed a treaty with China and inexplicably agreed to withdraw troops from Tibetan towns of Yatung and Gyantse, which were mainly trading posts, and also wind up the garrison in Lhasa. It handed over control of postal, telegraph and telephone facilities to the Chinese.
None of these concessions satisfied the Chinese. Instead, these missteps whetted the appetite of a resurgent Middle Kingdom. China did not accept any of the lines the British had drawn on the map and kept claiming more and more of Indian territory. Finally, war ensued. In 1962, China handed India a devastating defeat that continues to haunt the country to this day.
The two countries severed diplomatic relations after the war. They restored them only in 1984. Since then, they have conducted several rounds of negotiations and signed several agreements but never been able to agree to define and demarcate the line of actual control (LAC), the de facto line dividing Indian and Chinese territory, or agree upon an international boundary. Despite India’s repeated efforts to get the LAC demarcated, the Chinese have been intransigent. It is far too convenient for them to have an undefined LAC, which allows them to alter it for strategic advantage whenever they have an opportune moment.
China’s Expansionist Policy and Indian Response
Chinese intransigence is the key reason why the two countries have been unable to come to an agreement. In 1960, Zhou Enlai, the Chinese premier, proposed formalizing the status quo. He suggested India keep what is now called Arunachal Pradesh while China would retain Aksai Chin. Later, Deng Xiaoping reiterated Zhou’s position. In 1962, Chinese troops largely withdrew from Indian territory and even vacated the strategic town of Tawang, a great center of Buddhist learning and pilgrimage.
As per these actions, one could infer the Chinese took what they want. Sadly, this is not true. The Chinese have been consistently and persistently moving the goalposts. China now refuses to accept the McMahon Line in Arunachal Pradesh as the international boundary and is claiming Tawang again on the ground that the sixth Dalai Lama was born here. It is important to remember that the border alignment agreed by China with Myanmar follows roughly this very line.
China has been constantly upgrading its military and building up its border infrastructure. It has also been breaching all the agreements that it signed with India. The only exception is the exchange of maps relating to the middle sector bordering the Indian state of Uttarakhand in 2005.
This year, China has displayed unusual belligerence far exceeding past practices. It has exerted pressure in both North Sikkim and Ladakh. The proximate reason lies in India belatedly boosting its border infrastructure. It has built the world’s highest airfield at Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO). An all-weather road now goes east from Leh, the capital of Ladakh, to Durbuk and then further east to the Shyok river, from where it turns north and runs all along the LAC right up to DBO. This airfield sits at the base of a historic pass through the Karakoram and gives India access to Central Asia. It is also close to the strategic Siachen Glacier where India controls the commanding heights and dominates Pakistan.
For decades, India neglected its border infrastructure. Defeat to China in 1962 scarred the country. Its policymakers went into a defeatist mindset. They thought good roads would be used by the Chinese to speed into Indian territory while rugged undeveloped terrain would slow down Chinese advance. Domestic organizations and foreign private companies have now dramatically altered the ground situation, especially in the western sector. This has made China nervous. It feels the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) — a trade route that is important for Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative and its geopolitical strategy in South Asia — might be under threat. Indian troops could block off its access to Gilgit-Baltistan.
Possibly as a reaction, Chinese troops have been pressing at strategic points on the Ladakh border such as Gogra Hot Springs, Depsang Bulge, Galwan Valley and Pangong Tso Lake. They want to make sure that the road India has built to its airfield at DBO comes within range of Chinese gunsights. Nibbling Indian territory has been the general strategy for a long time. The Chinese are infamous for following “salami tactics” not only with India but also with other neighbors like Vietnam or Japan.
Increasingly, China appears to be unnerved by India’s strategic direction. In 2017, New Delhi was firm in defending Bhutan’s territory in Doklam Plateau, which China lays claim to. India has strengthened ties with Australia, the European Union and the US. The specter of the Quad, an alliance of India, Japan, Australia and the US, blocking the Straits of Malacca — an international waterway — haunts China. In particular, China fears that the US is backing India to be a counterweight to China in Asia.
Under President Xi, China has been increasingly aggressive on its borders. It has also been repressive internally. China has tightened the screws on Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang. The Belt and Road Initiative is another example of Chinese expansionism.
China’s recent belligerence might come from a deep sense of insecurity due to several recent developments. The US has unleashed a trade war that has hit China’s export-oriented economy hard. Furthermore, capital and manufacturing have been moving to Indonesia and Vietnam. India has now made a play for that capital as well. In addition, Western countries have criticized China for its domestic as well as external actions. The COVID-19 pandemic has blotted its record and lowered its global image. India has supported the US in calling out China on its suppression of information about the pandemic and in instituting an inquiry into the origins of the COVID-19 disease.
India has long borne the brunt of Chinese aggression. It has never raised the issue of an independent Tibet in the international arena. It was the first non-socialist country to recognize China. Yet China has consistently acted against India’s interests. It has used Pakistan as a proxy against India. Beijing has even provided nuclear technology and fissile material to Islamabad. It blocks India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, an organization of nuclear-supplier countries. It has built a port in Sri Lanka and instigated the communist government in Nepal to act against India’s interests.
The time has come for India to stand up to China’s bullying. The nation cannot allow China to keep gobbling up Indian territory. India has to keep modernizing its military, building up its border infrastructure and developing closer ties with other nations threatened by China. Most importantly, India has to recognize that China is its principal strategic enemy, both in the short and the long term. Therefore, India has no option but to cast off its failed non-aligned policy and ally with the US against China. Only a full-fledged military alliance between the world’s two largest democracies will deter the world’s biggest tyrannical regime.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.