Ominous signals from Beijing
On the India-China Borderby Srikanth Kondapalli
Strange are the ways of China. The ongoing border tensions between India and China in the Ladakh sector have revealed how Beijing operates. For instance, China wants to build roads everywhere, including in regions claimed by India, but will not allow India to do so in its own regions. China’s military wants to change the status quo in its favour but it will not countenance others wanting the same. After laying down extensive road, railway and fibre-optic networks and deploying military forces over years, now, China is trying to stop India from doing the same on the Indian side. This is not just in the India-China border areas, but Beijing is doing the same with its neighbours in the South China Sea region, too.
Strange also are China’s words depicting the nature of the conflict at the borders. China’s officials and media claim that India is “violating” their “sovereignty and territorial integrity” and “trespassing” in the western sector currently, as if the two countries have agreed-upon maps delineating their respective borders in these areas. None exist between India and China. China is now claiming the Galwan area, which was traditionally part of the Kashmir princely state and at no point in China’s history did it have control over it.
Previously, China received Kashmir territory from Pakistan, including Aghil, Shimshal, Ruksam and Sakshgam valleys, in addition to expanding its encroachment on Indian land of 52,000 sq km, including 38,000 sq km of Aksai Chin area. China’s territorial appetite seems to have no limits. Its discourse in the South China Sea dispute is similar -- that it has “indisputable” sovereignty over the whole of the South China Sea, even though many islands are clearly in Vietnamese or Filipino waters, besides the Senkaku islands of Japan.
Home Minister Amit Shah’s August 6, 2019 statement that Aksai Chin and Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir are integral parts of India has been cited as the reason for China’s current overdrive in this region, though External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar had a week later clarified to his counterpart Wang Yi in Beijing that India was making no new territorial claims with the new legislation bifurcating J&K and Ladakh as new Union Territories.
Strange also are the ways of resolving the stand-offs. The Depsang Plains incident in April-May 2013 was resolved after three weeks of similar pitching of tents as is being seen now. In comparison, the Doklam crisis in 2017 took 72 days to resolve. But, soon after the stand-off was reported to have been resolved, China resumed building the road to Jampheri Ridge, which India had objected to and was the trigger for that stand-off.
In the current episode at Galwan in Ladakh, China demands that India stop building a feeder road to the Line of Actual Control (LAC) on the Indian side. On the other hand, the Naku La incident in Sikkim earlier this month was resolved with the implementation of confidence-building mechanisms. However, the Chinese have resisted similar mechanisms in the three-week long Galwan stand-off so far, despite the reported six meetings between the two sides. Are the Chinese digging in for a long haul here that might possibly last until September when the freezing winter will start taking its toll on both sides?
Strange again that there are no major announcements on either side about the ongoing tussle in Galwan. Rumours are flying thick and fast that the Chinese have deployed a division-strength troops spread across multiple points. On May 21, China’s foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said that the “Chinese border troops are…responding resolutely to India's trespassing and infringing activities…[and] refrain from taking any unilateral actions that may complicate the situation.” India rejected this position. However, Zhao said that both sides are discussing the issue through diplomatic channels.
Strange, that while China stated that the United States has no role in the bilateral boundary issues of India and China, its party-state controlled newspapers seek to threaten India into not joining the global criticism of China’s handling of the Covid-19 epidemic or the resultant re-location of supply chains in the Indo-Pacific region.
China’s comments came after outgoing US Assistant Secretary of State Alice Wells said that whether in South China Sea or on the border with India, China exhibited “provocative and disturbing behaviour”. Interestingly, the US has since 1962 acknowledged the McMahon line as India’s border with China in the eastern sector but has so far refrained from saying anything on the western sector of the border.
Strange, yet again, is the logic of China’s government owned think-tanks and party scholars. They suggest that India has resorted to road-building in Ladakh to divert attention from the Indian economy’s parlous state due to the Covid-19 lockdown. Truth is, the Indian Border Roads Organisation built the 255-km Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie road long ago and the work on even the feeder roads to the LAC began last year.
Why is China being economical with facts and its own intentions? On May 15, foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian skirted around the issue of the Diamer Bhasha dam project in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir, which is violative of India’s sovereignty. However, ever since China began the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in 2014, investing $62 billion (of which $42 billion has already been spent) for connectivity projects between Kashgar in Xinjiang to Islamabad and beyond to Gwadar port, these roads have passed through Kashmiri territories occupied by Pakistan. And to secure these projects, China has deployed 36,000 ‘security guards’ in this region, besides the Pakistan Army committing one division of troops.
If China’s intention is to gain unfair advantage in the border areas by dominating them through dual-use infrastructure projects, intervening in the internal affairs of India on the Kashmir issue at the UN Security Council meetings, and mobilising ‘security guards’ in Pakistan/China-Occupied Kashmir, keeping India off guard in the region or “not allowing thy neighbour to sleep properly at night,” as Mao Zedong once said, then India has some hard choices to make now.
(The writer is Professor in Chinese Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)