By insisting on 1959 LAC, China seeks to justify recent intrusion, put pressure on India to accept redrawing of border

If this marked the first time in recent years that China has sought to unambiguously redefine the LAC in accord with its 1959 claim line, a demand that India has consistently rejected, Chinese foreign ministry upped the ante further on Tuesday when it called into question India’s sovereignty over Ladakh.

Sreemoy Talukdar October 01, 2020 11:14:20 IST
By insisting on 1959 LAC, China seeks to justify recent intrusion, put pressure on India to accept redrawing of border

Situation tense on the LAC. AFP

We were getting used to the uneasy calm, a sort of edgy interlude that occurs between high-tension conflicts as Indian and Chinese troops, along with all their arms and armaments, breathe down on each other’s necks in a tense deadlock on the Himalayan terrain. The onset of a brutal winter promised some respite and a fledgeling hope that a diplomatic solution could still be hammered out. China’s latest needling of India, however, shows that it is ready to raise the stakes even more.

The calm that prevails for now looks ominous. The IAF chief recently called it a “no war, no peace” situation and reiterated that defence forces are prepared for “any eventuality”. We have seen recent reports that troops on the ground have been given clear instructions to open fire if the PLA tries to pull any stunt.

As far as deployments go, India has reportedly rolled out 500km-range Brahmos missiles or the long-range indigenous subsonic missile Nirbhay to neutralise the threat of Chinese SAM (surface-to-air missile) deployment in Tibet. Video clips of Indian Army’s tank formations — T-90 and BMP vehicles — in Chumar-Demchock have also been leaked to the press.

The massive buildup of troops and the escalatory spiral leading to a deadly clash in Galwan has been described by S Jaishankar, India’s external affairs minister, as the “most serious situation since 1962”. Reports have emerged that the PLA had raised its combat readiness to the second-highest level following a serious firing incident on the northern bank of Pangong Tso just ahead of Jaishankar-Wang Yi meeting in Moscow.

It is by now clear that the decades-old architecture of patrolling protocols, CBMs and multi-layered talks and core principles to maintain peace and tranquillity at the border have collapsed and in need of urgent replacement in keeping with the revised geopolitical realities.

However, it is equally true that both nations have so far shown an unwillingness to let the escalatory spiral descend into a full-blown military conflict. The consultative mechanism is broken but both India and China have still persisted with it, though their motivations vary. For Beijing, a kinetic action is unnecessary. It would rather use the time provided by “talks” to consolidate its hold on the territory it occupies post April-May.

As this columnist pointed out previously, a protracted stalemate favours China because it is the aggressor and has managed to change the status quo with its stealth encroachments. Conversely, India’s options are either to accept China’s fait accompli or launch a military offensive to evict the PLA from the territory that India considers as own.

However, since India has on more than one occasion reiterated that a solution to India-China border row “has to be found in the domain of diplomacy”, it has given rise to a belief that both countries will “muddle through” the crisis and eventually arrive at a solution even if it takes time, as former foreign national security advisor Shivshankar Menon said at a recent webinar.

So, if the precarious, fragile calm has held so far, it is largely due to a combination of China’s lack of motivation for kinetic action at this stage and India’s pacifist stance. It seemed that the border crisis would persist in the foreseeable future but would deescalate from a flashpoint to a battle of attrition. In this context, China’s recent statements in reference to its fictitious 1959 claim line and dismissal of India’s sovereignty over Ladakh are provocative, unsettling and make for disturbing conclusions.

In a statement to Hindustan Times newspaper, Chinese foreign ministry defined its perception of the LAC as proposed by former Chinese premier Zhou Enlai to Jawaharlal Nehru in 1959.

“Firstly, China-India border LAC is very clear, that is the LAC on November 7, 1959. China announced it in the 1950s, and the international community including India are also clear about it,” Beijing reportedly told the newspaper. China blamed Indian troops for “illegally crossing the border (and) unilaterally expanding the scope of actual control” and tied down disengagement to “India’s withdrawal of all illegal cross-border personnel and equipment,” according to the report.

If this marked the first time in recent years that China has sought to unambiguously redefine the LAC in accord with its 1959 claim line, a demand that India has consistently rejected, Chinese foreign ministry upped the ante further on Tuesday when it called into question India’s sovereignty over Ladakh.

At a press conference, spokesperson Wang Wenbin said: “China doesn't recognize the so-called ‘Ladakh Union Territory’ illegally set up by India and opposes infrastructure building aimed at military contention in disputed border areas.” Asked about China’s building of massive infrastructure along the LAC, Wang predictably claimed that “Chinese border troops have long been on the Chinese side of the LAC and strictly complying with bilateral agreements with India.”

China’s provocative statements have elicited a sharp response from India. In its statement, the Ministry of External Affairs has rejected China’s unilateral definition of 1959 LAC, reiterating that China is fully aware of India’s position. The statement also pointed to various bilateral agreements signed in 1993, 1996 and 2005, where “both India and China have committed to clarification and confirmation of the LAC to reach a common understanding of the alignment” and “the two sides had engaged in an exercise to clarify and confirm the LAC up to 2003, but this process could not proceed further as the Chinese side did not show a willingness to pursue it.” Therefore, stated the MEA, “the insistence now of the Chinese side that there is only one LAC is contrary to the solemn commitments made by China in these agreements.”

India’s response is on predictable lines, but it leaves open a few unanswered issued raised by China’s latest provocation. Why is China doing this? What to make of the timing, tone and tenor of Chinese statements? A few points may be made.

1. Putting pressure on India ahead of talks

Notably, Chinese claims were made just ahead of the 19th meeting of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination (WMCC) on border affairs and the sixth virtual conference since the crisis unfolded in April-May. Nobody seriously expected a breakthrough when Naveen Srivastava of the external affairs ministry and his counterpart Hong Liang met to discuss “how to implement the five-point consensus reached in Moscow (on September 10)” but Chinese pressure tactics would have precluded any possibility of achieving even notional progress.

How does that help China? As has been noted, it is in China’s interest to maintain the stalemate at the border and resist a diplomatic resolution and buy time for its troops to further reinforce their “new facts on ground”. This modus operandi has served China well in various theatres from the Himalayas to the South China Sea. There is no logical reason why Beijing would abandon this profitable tactic.

It isn’t surprising to note, therefore, that the statement released by MEA post the WMCC meeting indicated the lack of even a hint of progress. Both sides “had frank and detailed discussions on the developments since the last meeting of the WMCC on 20 August”. They agreed that “agreement between the two Foreign Ministers should be sincerely implemented.” They stressed on “strengthening communication, especially between the ground commanders” and “agreed to continue to maintain close consultations at the diplomatic and military level.” The template feels repetitive and pointless.

2. A hardening of Chinese stance

Chinese motivations are hard to read and decision-making process even harder but a general toughening of stance vis-à-vis India on the unresolved border issue has been evident for some time. Even if we disregard the consistently provocative statements in Global Times, the nature of a US-India security alliance and the challenges that it poses for China has got renewed attention since the Donald Trump administration put India at the front and centre of its Indo-Pacific policy.

Leave aside pervasive trolling from CCP’s attack dog newspaper that relies on unhinged rhetoric for eyeballs, serious Chinese scholars are debating whether India has already “accepted a de facto alliance with the US” and the increasing consensus seems to be that “the benefits that the US has offered in material and diplomatic terms have already emboldened New Delhi to pursue risky policies vis-à-vis Pakistan in addition to a more assertive negotiating posture towards China,” as Yun Sun of Stimson Center pointed out in her piece titled China’s Strategic Assessment Of India in War on The Rocks.

More recently, such a trend has been noticed and commented upon in Indian strategic circles. A report in The Hindu points out that Chinese scholars are calling for a hardline ‘reset’ of ties with India based on an assumption that New Delhi is little more than a US lackey.

Scholar Liu Zongyi of Renmin University in Beijing is quoted as saying, “India and the US have formed a de facto military alliance. Under the current situation, we must re-assess our understanding of the US-India alliance and reset our India strategy,” which according to Liu should be a more toughened posture to discourage what he calls India’s opportunistic behavior and “offensive-defensive policy” on the border. The fact that this assessment was published in a mainstream media outlet and Liu had visited the border areas for a “survey” points to the fact that this may have been vetted by the authorities, notes the report.

Interestingly, a few days ahead of the Chinese foreign ministry statement that referred to the 1959 LAC, Yun Sun of Stimson Center (mentioned above) in an interview to The Print had predicted that China in its redrawing of the LAC is aiming for the 1959 claim line. “There are different signals from Beijing. We can see that China is probably aiming for their LAC back in 1959… What happened between 1959 and 1962 according to Chinese perception was an Indian ‘forward policy’ that advanced towards the Chinese territory, which eventually led to the 1962 war.”

Taken together, these point to a systemic change in China’s approach towards India based on a reassessment post the 2017 Doklam standoff that finds expression in greater aggression and hardening of stance on the border issue. A normal state would have fallen back on talks to thrash out the differences, but China isn’t a normal state. Led by a paranoid Chinese Communist Party that needs a perpetual enemy to sustain its control China’s rise is underpinned by a siege mentality that leads to a revanchist posture.

3. Collusion with Pakistan

The close conjunction between Pakistan’s declaration of tighter administrative control over the Gilgit-Baltistan region — that India claims as its sovereign territory — and China’s announcement that it “doesn't recognize the so-called ‘Ladakh Union Territory’ illegally set up by India” is not coincidental. In its ‘new political map’ — an example of cartographic fantasy — Pakistan had left the China “frontier undefined”, suggesting China’s invisible influence.

More recently, Pakistan’s move to elevate the disputed territory’s status to a full-fledged province gives covering fire to China’s cartographic revanchism in Ladakh and also insulates China’s significant investments in the region.

As professor Harsh V Pant of King’s College, London, was quoted as saying in South China Morning Post, “by trying to legalise its stranglehold over Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan is trying to not only remove the roadblocks to Chinese investors in CPEC, but also giving Beijing greater access. It also made the two-front war scenario very realistic.”

The synchronized steps between Pakistan and China on the Himalayan frontiers should certainly worry India, and Beijing’s provocative statement on Ladakh should be seen in this context.

4. India’s upgradation of border infrastructure

This has long been Beijing’s pet peeve, and with Narendra Modi government’s stress on the upgradation of border infrastructure to match China’s road-and-bridge network along the LAC, Chinese irritation seems to have hardened into more aggressive behaviour. Wang Wenbin made a clear reference to this during Tuesday’s press conference and in their assessments, both Yun Sun and Liu Zongyi have referred to India’s development of “infrastructure at an accelerated pace since 2014”.

In her piece China’s Strategic Assessment of Ladakh Clash, Yun writes: “For the Chinese, the infrastructure arms race in the border region has enabled the repeated incursions and changes to the status quo, and therefore needs to be stopped. Otherwise, all the things China fought for in the 1962 war would have been in vain.”

This points to a causal relationship between India’s building of roads and China’s attempt to lock in the comparative advantage by encroaching on Indian territory.

5. 1959 claim line as an excuse to justify encroachment

This is by far the most compelling explanation of China’s recent rhetorical flourish. Two points are worth noting upfront. One, China’s 1959 claims have always been wishy-washy to the extent that these have never been seriously considered during bilateral agreements. Two, China has been well aware of India’s clear and consistent objection to this claim.

Former NSA Menon, who played a pivotal role in the 1993 border agreement, writes in his book Choices, “In both 1959 and 1962 India had rejected the concept of a Line of Actual Control, arguing that the Chinese concept was a disconnected series of points on a map that could be joined up in many ways; the lines should omit gains from aggression in 1962 and therefore should be based on actual position on September 8, 1962, before the Chinese attack.”

Ashok Kantha, former India’s ambassador to China who was involved in negotiations for the 1996 Agreement on CBMs in the military field described the 1959 LAC as a “notional and fictional line with no basis in facts” in a Hindustan Times report. “They have tried this in the past, and this notional LAC has been rejected by India, including during the 1993 negotiations,” Kantha is quoted, as saying.

More than five months into the crisis, if China is suddenly insisting on a fictional claim line that has never been agreed upon by the other side in border agreements, it points to a conclusion that China needs to justify PLA’s recent occupation of Indian territory and it has no intention of scaling back from the areas that Chinese troops trespass upon. Beijing’s maximalism points to an inflexible attitude in border negotiations and suggests that the precarious road to a diplomatic solution became harder still.

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