Even though Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Ladakhand encouragement to our troops on the frontlines at the LAC have made it clear that this standoff with China isn’t just a military-to-military face-off, questions still abound on ‘how long would this standoff last?’. The short answer is that the Chinese are there to stay! It would do us all well to learn from history.
China’s presence on Aksai Chin – for the past 70 years – has been known to us all. This has its roots in China’s desire to control Aksai Chin, for three reasons. First, is the road link from Kashgar (in Sinkiang) to Lhasa (in Tibet), in the two distant but troubled regions of China. Second, is the waters and lakes of this region that China needs for its people there, whose other sources have been contaminated due to Chinese nuclear tests in Lop Nor. Third, is the vast mineral resources there, like uranium, that were first excavated by the Soviets, who used it for making their atom bomb, until Stalin handed the region over to Mao, to win him into their anti-US alliance.
Chinese troops thus moved into the Aksai region in the 1950s and have stayed since then, even as the Indian government of Pandit Nehru had made it known to the Army that India’s only threat came from Pakistan. China, they said, could be handled with diplomacy. This was the belief in South Block until May this year. Only the recent clashes in the Galwan region have woken up India’s establishment to the limits of Indian diplomacy.
On the 85th birthday of the Dalai Lama (on 6 July), it would be realistic to accept that his escape from Tibet (in March 1959) and his exile in India, would alter Sino-Indian relations dramatically. Even after China’s occupation of Tibet, in the early 1950s, Pandit Nehru and his team of loyalists in New Delhi refused to accept China’s growing territorial threat to India. In fact, on 29 April 1954, the Indian government had signed an Agreement on Trade and Intercourse with the Tibet Region of China and India. The very title of this eight-year agreement formally declared that Tibet was a part of China.
This agreement also contained the ‘five principles of peaceful co-existence’ (Panchsheel, as it later came to be known). But China eventually chose to ignore these efforts, as India had published a map in 1954 showing Aksai Chin as a part of India.
And even though China had built up its military presence in Aksai Chin, Pandit Nehru told the Indian Parliament on 4 May 1959, that India’s “policy towards China remained unchanged and it would continue to support China’s entry into the United Nations.” Furthermore, on 1 July 1959, Panditji declared that New Delhi would not recognise the Dalai Lama as the head of a Tibetan government and that Tibet was a part of China. But all this wasn’t enough for China. They wanted more territory, come what may.
From October 1958, differing Sino-Indian claims on the boundary alignment on the Himalayas had become a matter of public concern in India, with the news that China had built a 180-kilometre long highway connecting Xinjiang (then Sinkiang) to Tibet via Aksai Chin (that historically was a part of Ladakh),which India regarded as its own. India’s claims were based on the boundaries suggested at the Simla Convention of 1913-14. This was signed only between the British government in India and the Tibetan government. The Chinese representative at the long drawn out conference had only initialled few maps, awaiting clearance from Peking, which never came.
This final agreement defines the boundaries of Tibet with India, but only from east of Bhutan and onto Burma (now Myanmar). This came to be known as the McMahon Line. And though PM Nehru had asserted in Parliament—to loud cheers—that “the McMahon Line is our boundary, map or no map… [and] we will not allow anybody to cross the boundary”, the Chinese regime of Mao Tse Tung refused to accept any maps or India’s claims. This is the case even now, and hence the Chinese encroachments on the LAC and in Sikkim.
Under pressure at home, Pandit Nehru became increasingly assertive about India’s claims. It eventually escalated into the ‘Longju incident’ of 25 August 1959 that marked the first armed encounter between Indian and Chinese forces. Longju is located along the McMahon Line. And as reports of the ‘Longju incident’ became public knowledge in India, Nehru was further distressed to receive a letter from China’s PM, Chou (Zhao) En Lai, in 1959 (8 September) that Indian troops had invaded and occupied a number of places, and that India was shielding armed Tibetan rebels, with Indian aircraft violating Chinese air space. And though Nehru gave reassurances to China that he regarded Tibet as a part of China, it didn’t quite help resolve the tension.
Though PM Nehru had asserted in Parliament—to loud cheers—that “the McMahon Line is our boundary, map or no map… [and] we will not allow anybody to cross the boundary”, the Chinese regime of Mao Tse Tung refused to accept any maps or India’s claims. This is the case even now, and hence the Chinese encroachments on the LAC and in Sikkim.
Soon their correspondence became acrimonious, and it led to battlelines being drawn over the conflicting boundary claims. Shijie Zhishi, a popular Chinese publication, went on to assert (20 September 1959) that “the McMahon Line was ‘íllegal’ and that the Chinese people will never accept it”.
Thus differences between China and India continued to grow. Yet another major cause of concern to the Chinese was the increasing footprint of the United States in the region, with the CIA having become a key player in India in supporting the Tibetan resistance that also annoyed the Chinese.
The CIA engaged the exiled Tibetans — from the Sino-Indian border town of Kalimpong —with the help and members of Nehru’s administration. Historian Benjamin Zachariah claims that BNMullick, Nehru’s IB chief, worked closely with the CIA to train a number of anti-Communists as Indian intelligence agents and to sponsor a Tibetan guerilla force. Thus, as the US began to influence opinion of the ‘Chinese danger’ amongst India’s politicians from the mid-1950s — even though Nehru was keen to abandon the British policy of the ‘great game’ in the Himalayas — the CIA had begun to engage with Tibetan resistance leaders to challenge China’s occupation of Tibet.
The talk of China’s withdrawal may sound good to people in India, anxious that things must get back to business as usual. But beware of China’s territorial creep northwards of the Galwan valley via the Depsang plains onto the Karakoram pass.
From then onevents moved rather too fast for anybody – even if they had the intent – to stall the slide into disaster. But whenever Nehru was asked about China’s increasing presence in Tibet, and their steady encroachment of territory, their claim lines as it were, which could lead to its stepping beyond the ‘line’ that India insisted was settled, Nehru would respond with ‘liberate Tibet from whom?’ This ‘idealism’ had, among others, frustrated India’s military commanders. They knew it would cost India dearly in the long run.
And as General KS Thimayya, the then Army chief would often try to impress upon Nehru the shortcomings of the Indian Army—less manpower, lack of winter clothing and firepower—Nehru would pass the matter to his trusted associate, Krishna Menon, the then defence minister. And Menon threatened Thimayya with ‘political repercussions’ if he went public with his concerns. Frustrated and fed up, General Thimayya sent in his resignation on 31 August 1959.
And when Nehru did see Thimayya later that day, he persuaded the Army Chief to withdraw his resignation in the nation’s interest. However, news about this incident was leaked, making media headlines, leading Nehru to assure Parliamenton 2 Septemberthat he had persuaded the Army chief to withdraw his resignation. And then, surprisingly, Nehru went on to reproach the Army Chief for ‘wanting to quit in the middle of the Sino-Indian border crisis’.
This damaged Thimayya’s tall military reputation. Nehru was known to fear a military takeover (as General Ayub Khan had done in Pakistan in 1958)and saw Thimayya as a direct threat. From then until his retirement, Thimayya was publicly sidelined by the Nehru-Krishna Menon duo. Their faith began to rest with Lt. Gen. BM (Bijji) Kaul, who later became one of the menmost responsible for the military debacle of 1962.
As General KS Thimayya, the then Army chief would often try to impress upon Nehru the shortcomings of the Indian Army—less manpower, lack of winter clothing and firepower—Nehru would pass the matter to his trusted associate, Krishna Menon, the then defence minister.
Although we are nowhere near as ill-prepared as in 1962,it would be prudent to take a leaf out of the experiences of our recent past. Having intruded past our border or boundary lines, neither China nor Pakistan have vacated the territories they have grabbedin POK and Aksai Chin, since India’s independence. It is now a given to assume that any territory that isn’t physically held by troops – more so, if the claims of two countries are disputed – then, when an opportunity arises, it is grabbed by a country like China, which has no respect for the status quo. Maps and political claims will not get China to relent.
More so, as China’s territorial ambitions are known to those of us who study China seriously, the pattern of its intrusions was telling over the past decade. Unfortunately, India’s establishment was both averse to intellectual pluralism (i.e, advice from outsiders) and has refused to learn from history.
Finally, the talk of China’s withdrawal may sound good to people in India, anxious that things must get back to business as usual. But beware of China’s territorial creep northwards of the Galwan valley via the Depsang plains onto the Karakoram pass. This is to open the route to the flagship project of President Xi Jinping, the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. If China has control over Galwan Valley and the Depsang plains (north of Leh) it will greatly shorten the route taken by the Chinese – by less than 1800 kilometres through very rough terrain – to link up with the Shaksgam valley, which China first grabbed and then made Pakistan ‘temporarily’ gift it to Beijing!
This valley, though inhospitable, has the largest collection of glaciers ( 252 to be precise)that China regards as a source of water to further its agenda of world domination. China needs an abundance of water to manufacture microchips and silicon wafers, which require lots of water. And it is the waters of Ladakh and Kashmir that China wants and has eyed since the 1950s.
A version of this article first appeared in https://www.timesnownews.com/columns/article/understanding-chinas-agenda-in-aksai-chin-lessons-from-history/617068 on 6 July 2020.