India-China LAC stand-off is result of cartographic imprecision and evasions, shows dangers of believing in own myth-making

As Indian and Chinese military commanders meet this weekend to iron out the tactical issues driving the unfolding confrontation on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh, political leaders in the two capitals could do worse than curl up with Tolkien’s delicious tale.

Praveen Swami June 06, 2020 13:36:04 IST
India-China LAC stand-off is result of cartographic imprecision and evasions, shows dangers of believing in own myth-making

“The farmer went about with a high step, and luck smiled on him”, reads JRR Tolkien’s Farmer Giles of Ham, “All seemed set fair, until the dragon came.” Farmer Giles — properly Aegidius Ahenobarbus Julius Agricola de Hammo, because “people were richly endowed with names in those days” — becomes a hero after driving away a marauding giant with his ancient blunderbuss.

Fame, though, has its perils: the portly farmer’s bragging about his — mostly accidental — triumph leads his being volunteered by the King to confront a wily dragon, Chrysophylax.

Guided by his wits, which prove more useful than the magic dragon-slaying sword Caudimorax, Farmer Giles triumphs, over the King, that is. He becomes Lord of Ham, living peacefully with Chrysophylax, housed comfortably in the farm’s barn.

Like all fables, Farmer Giles of Ham holds out important lessons, key among them, the danger of being prisoner to one’s own myth-making. As Indian and Chinese military commanders meet this weekend to iron out the tactical issues driving the unfolding confrontation on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh, political leaders in the two capitals could do worse than curl up with Tolkien’s delicious tale.

The little picture

First up, there’s the little picture: Like so many territorial disputes, the struggle over the LAC is wrapped up in cartographic imprecision and evasions. Lieutenant-General HS Panag, among others, has asserted that the Indian Army “is very clear about the alignment of the LAC as we have cremated/buried our comrades who were killed in action in 1962. China stopped exactly on its claim line of 1960 and our rear posts were located on this line during the ’62 War”.

But the maps accompanying General Panag’s article show the LAC running well to the east of where China claims it reached in the 1962 war. For example, the maps show the Galwan river valley lying on India’s side of the LAC; China, in its 1962 map, claimed to have evicted all Indian posts from Galwan, and asserted the entire valley lay on its side of the LAC. The Chinese claim is affirmed in the account of the battle of Galwan in India’s official history of the war.

IndiaChina LAC standoff is result of cartographic imprecision and evasions shows dangers of believing in own mythmaking

Like so many territorial disputes, the struggle over the LAC is wrapped up in cartographic imprecision and evasions

The LAC was never surveyed; the India-Pakistan Line of Control, by contrast, was mapped in granular detail, and recorded in documents signed by both countries. For decades, both sides dispatched small patrols into territory the other claimed, a0 largely symbolic assertion of ownership, made by leaving behind cigarette or biscuit packets at their terminal points.

Following the 1999 Kargil war, a Group of Ministers recommended a build-up of border infrastructure like roads, fearing a Kargil-like limited war with China. In the 1980s, China — helped by the fact that its troops in Tibet sit on a plateau — had significantly enhanced its logistical networks along the LAC, and set up posts in territories until then only occasionally patrolled.  New Delhi, not unreasonably, didn’t want the LAC drifting further west.

As India’s border works came into being, though, the People’s Liberation Army began to push back. Beginning with the Chip Chap crisis of 2013, the PLA sought to stop Indian construction work and restrict Indian patrols in territory inside territory it claims as its own.

For the most part, the confrontations now unfolding along the LAC are of a piece with this process. The Galwan river confrontation began after the completion of a road running from the airbase at Daulat Beg Oldi, which theoretically allowed Indian troops to maintain posts in valley.

In Pangong, Beijing has responded to road-work by seeing to block Indian troops from patrolling beyond a ridge called Finger 2, well short of India’s claimed LAC.

In other circumstances, this bump-and-shove on the border would have mattered little.

The big picture

But there’s a bigger picture: Ever since the 2008 global financial crisis, Beijing has come to believe the United States is leading a coalition to contain its rise. Like India, China suffered enormous hardship because of colonialism, and many in Beijing are persuaded the West seeks to protect its hegemony by denying it its rightful status as a superpower.

Indians see a fire-breathing dragon to their east; China’s eyes are focussed on the magic swords of the dragon-slaying knights all around.

These strategic suspicions aren’t new. In 1955, a United States-made Mk.7-type military detonator was found to have set off the bomb that brought down an Air India Constellation sent to carry China’s premier, Zhou Enlai, to a conference in Indonesia.

Zhou — who survived because he had cancelled his travel plans at the last minute — drew the obvious conclusions.

From 1956, the Central Intelligence Agency set about training arming insurgents who had risen against Chinese rule in Tibet. Though the CIA secret flights supplying the insurgency operated out of bases in East Pakistan, Kalimpong.

Zhou, rightly or wrongly, wasn’t persuaded by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s repeated promises that he knew nothing of CIA activity in Kalimpong. The full historical record hasn’t been declassified, but there are tantalising suggestions Zhou’s suspicions weren’t unfounded.

From India’s official war history, it’s clear India did consider the possibility of using military force to support Tibet in 1950, rejecting it only because the resources needed just weren’t available.

From 1955 on, there were a succession of Chinese military intrusions: at Barahoti, the Hipki La in Himachal Pradesh, Kaurik and Hipsang Khud. In each case, China insisted the PLA was on its own territory.

Khurnak Fort, in Ladakh, was occupied — and used as a base to supply outposts in Spanggur and Digra. Communist Party of China chairman Mao Zedong had begun drawing lines across the Himalayas in blood.

Former civil servant and scholar Sunil Khatri has argued that the real intention of the CIA operation was to fuel mutual suspicion between India and China and thus destroy the Non-Aligned Movement. If so, it succeeded.

Former CIA officer Bruce Reidel’s book, JFK’s Forgotten Crisis, has also noted that the agency’s “covert operation played a role in Mao’s decision to invade India.”

Home Minister Amit Shah’s vow to retake the Aksai Chin plateau, or boycotts of Chinese-made products in India, might be driven by domestic politics but in Beijing, many see strategic design to the hawkish polemic.

As in 1962, China and India are divided not just by different perceptions of the LAC, but an ever-widening chasm of suspicion.

Toxic ambitions

Like Farmer Giles, both China and India ended up at war because of their own myth-making. India’s 1950 map of its borders included no claim to Aksai Chin, recording its Ladakh frontier with China as “undefined”. New Delhi didn’t even come to know China had begun building a road through Aksai Chin in 1951.

IndiaChina LAC standoff is result of cartographic imprecision and evasions shows dangers of believing in own mythmaking

Like Farmer Giles, both China and India ended up at war because of their own myth-making. Image procured by author

“The Indian government”, India’s official history of the war of 1962 admits, “did not come to know of the building of this road as Indian forward posts in this inhospitable and uninhabited region were far behind the map-marked boundary.”

Beijing’s claims to Aksai Chin were, similarly, nebulous. In 1958, an official map first asserted claims over the whole of what was then India’s North-East Frontier Agency, with the exception of Tirap, as well as parts of Ladakh.

Zhou responded to Indian protests by repeating that the maps were based on old Kuomintang cartography, but added that China hadn’t surveyed its boundaries, nor consulted with other countries on the issue.

For the most part, what we now think of as borders were the outcome of imperial Qing and British expansionism, asserting control, Bérénice Guyot-Réchard’s path-breaking scholarship teaches us, over populations which had no sense of being either Chinese or Indian.

New Delhi and Beijing were both more suffused in the habits of imperialism than the citizens of either care to imagine.

Bertil Litner’s superb work on 1962 has demonstrated how far Mao’s road to war was paved by domestic concerns, among them, the need to whip up nationalist sentiment behind a regime battered by famine and economic hardship.

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, it isn’t widely known in India, was driven by similar forces. In December, 1958, he rejected an offer to survey the contested boundaries.

“There can be no question about these large parts of India being anything but India,” Nehru wrote. “I do not know what kind of surveys can affect these well-known and fixed boundaries.”

The following year, Nehru rejected Zhou’s offer for both sides’ armies to to fall back 20 kilometres from their lines.

Even though Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping have had the wisdom to avoid being trapped in the ultra-nationalism that led to the 1962 war, it’s clear leaders — and public — in both countries don’t share their caution.

Ill-informed posturing is increasingly driving public opinion, placing increasing pressure on leadership decision-making.

“A man who has a large and imperial dragon grovelling before him”, Tolkien noted “may be excused if he feels somewhat uplifted”. But the millions who’ve read the gentle fable know exactly why wielding a dragon-slaying sword can be a dangerous thing, even if you think you’ve won.

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