Dragon shadow in central Himalaya: Is China trying to open a new front against India?
China is preparing the ground for creating problems for India in the central sector as Beijing’s options are very limited in the northern and eastern sectors of the LAC
China is not happy with India. It expected Delhi to accept the fait accompli that the territories grabbed in Ladakh in 2020 would forever become part of the Middle Kingdom. Not only did the Indian Army negotiators in Moldo-Chushul, near the Pangong tso (lake), did not agree, but also External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar reiterated several times that the relationship between India and China will be impacted if the latter disturbs peace and tranquility in border areas. “Our relationship is not normal, it cannot be normal as the border situation is not normal,” he told PTI recently in Bengaluru.
The minister added that the main issue with China is the border, where the Indian Army has been holding ground for two years. “The situation is tense as the positioning of the two armies is very close. It also could be a dangerous situation.”
Beijing is also irritated with the Modi government because it has been more assertive on the Tibetan issue, for example by allowing the Dalai Lama to get a grand reception in Leh or providing all facilities (including an Indian Air Force helicopter to move around in the mountainous region) during his stay in Ladakh.
At the same time, India seems to be coming closer to the US, something which is not appreciated by China; Beijing is particularly resentful of a military drill which will take place from 18-31 October at an altitude of 10,000 feet in Uttarakhand’s Auli. The spokesman for the US Army in the Pacific explained: “The strategy for this year’s exercise focuses on cold-weather operations, and at high-altitude, an environment that poses distinct challenges.”
According to the Hindustan Times: “While the annual joint exercise ‘Yudh Abhyas’ is not new, the location and timing for this year’s drill are interesting, taking into consideration Beijing’s unprecedented exercise surrounding Taiwan in the past several days.”
Beijing was quick to counter-attack via The Global Times, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China; on 14 August. The publication warned: “Nepal should be vigilant about India’s bid to encroach its territory.”
Though during the Doklam confrontation in 2017, the dispute with Nepal at Lipulekh had once been mentioned by Beijing, China has never objected to Lipulekh being the pass between India and Tibet in the area; it is possible that Beijing did not insist, knowing it to be a sticky wicket. The recent move seems to indicate that China is ready to open a new front in the Himalaya; this time in the central sector.
The Global Times wrote: “New Delhi has been making new moves at the border recently… The two military exercises are aimed at strengthening the military interoperability between India and the United States. They have chosen areas close to the China-India border, directly targeting China at the tactical level. New Delhi is no longer shy about its intention to use the US to suppress China.”
Then the communist publication brings the ‘dispute’ with Nepal: “In recent years, in the Kalapani region at the junction of China, India and Nepal, India has also tried to occupy and seize as much as possible, arousing strong opposition from the Nepali side. The Kalapani region near the China-India-Nepal border is a traditionally disputed area between India and Nepal.”
The Chinese newspaper observes that “it can be seen that India has aggressively expanded its military facilities throughout Kalapani recently. India wants to kill two birds with one stone by doing so.”
For Beijing, forcing Nepal to accept the reality of the Indian ‘occupation’ and strengthening of the Indian military deployment in the area as a deterrent against Beijing, would be India’s double objectives.
Paradoxically, the Chinese perception of the border tallies with the Indian one. I shall come back to this.
Looking into history
Let us first look into the history of the trijunction between Nepal, Tibet (today China) and India.
On 8 May, 2020, an argument erupted between India and Nepal; the immediate reason which triggered the debate was an 80 km road between Darchula to Lipulekh, the traditional border pass near the trijunction with Tibet and Nepal, inaugurated by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh.
For centuries, the road has been used by the Indian pilgrims visiting Kailash-Mansarovar, located some 90 km from the pass, as well as the local traders; Lipulekh is also one of the three landports between India and China. Strategically also, this road is crucial for India.
The 1816 Treaty
After a war between British India and Nepal in 1814, the Nepalis were sent back across the Kali river in May 1815 and subsequently the Segowli Treaty was signed on 4 March 1816. Article 5 of the treaty stated: “The Rajah of Nepaul renounces for himself, his heirs and successors, all claim to or connection with the countries lying to the west of the rRiver Kali, and engages never to have any concern with those countries or the inhabitants thereof.” Unfortunately, there was no map attached which could have authoritatively shown the exact alignment and the source of the Kali River.
At that time, no scientific survey worth the name could be carried out; it was only by mid-19th century that the Himalayan border was properly surveyed by the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India (a precursor of the Survey of India) and was fixed where it is today (without objection from Nepal). Today, Nepal disputes the location of the river Kali.
The Chinese position
The cited article in The Global Times contradicts Beijing’s official position enounced in the “Boundary Treaty between the People’s Republic of China and the Kingdom of Nepal” signed by President Liu Shaoqi of China and King Mahendra of Nepal on October 5, 1961: “The Chairman of the People’s Republic of China and His Majesty the King of Nepal, being of the agreed opinion that a formal settlement of the question of the boundary between China and Nepal is of fundamental interest to the peoples of the two countries.”
Article I (1) defined the China-Nepal boundary line which “starts from the point where the watershed between the Kali river and the Tinkar river meets the watershed between the tributaries of the Mapchu (Karnali) River on the one hand and the Tinkar river on the other hand…”
Even more damming for China are the precise maps attached to the treaty and signed by both parties; Kathmandu seems to have forgotten that the location of river on the maps of the Sino-Nepali treaty matches with the Indian one, which implies that the 2020 road is without doubt on Indian territory. More such examples of Kathmandu’s and Beijing’s inconstancies could be cited.
The Memorandum of 1991
Has Beijing also forgotten the Memorandum between the Government of India and the Government of the People’s Republic of China on the Resumption of Border Trade signed on 13 December 1991, and the Protocol on Entry and Exit Procedures for Border Trade, signed on 1 July 1992 which confirm that China agreed to the boundary in the area?
The Trade Protocol between the two countries provided for expansion and diversification of trade between the two countries. “Both sides have agreed to encourage direct trade between the two countries. They have also agreed to promote the exchange of delegations in specific areas and to encourage their respective trade organisations and traders to explore possibilities of promoting bilateral trade through various forms of trade and cooperation.”
It was the first time that a pass reopened after the 1962 India-China war and the subsequent shutting down of the Himalayan borders.
For China, the border pass was (and still is today) Lipulekh.
The Global Times’ new threats
The recent Chinese article concluded: “However, China has reasons to be highly wary of India’s move. During the 1962 China-India border war, India sent a large number of troops into Sikkim under the pretext of protecting Sikkim and stayed there afterwards, foreshadowing India’s annexation of Sikkim. India is now able to prevail in the Kalapani dispute with Nepal, which is also because Nepal allowed Indian troops to station there after 1962.”
Though this does not make historical sense, it tends to show that China is preparing the ground for creating problems for India in the central sector as Beijing’s options are very limited in the northern and eastern sectors of the boundary.
Delhi needs to carefully watch the happenings in the central Himalayas during the coming weeks.
The writer is a noted author, journalist, historian, Tibetologist and China expert. The views expressed are personal.
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