The controversy that erupted over the presence of Chinese troops in the Daulat Bag Oldi area in April this year has to be seen in its proper perspective ~ ARUN KUMAR BANERJI
The India-China stand-off over the incursions into the Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) area in Ladakh is reminiscent of the controversy that had developed in 1986 over the construction of a helipad and a bunker by the Chinese in the Sumdurong Chu Valley, allegedly within Indian territory. Subsequent investigations revealed that the matter was not as simple as it was sought to be projected. The lessons of the 1986 crisis are relevant even today.
The process of normalisation of India-China relations, initiated during the mid-1970s, was taken a step further by the decision of the two governments in 1981 to begin official-level talks for resolving the border dispute. Five rounds of talks were held between December 1981 and September 1984 and during these meetings procedural issues and the principles governing negotiations were discussed. While substantive issues were to be taken up at the next round of talks scheduled to the held in New Delhi in 1985, the Chinese had queered the pitch by claiming that the eastern sector was the most disputed area of the entire boundary and that India was in possession of some 90,000 sq. km of Chinese territory. Though the sudden change in the Chinese position surprised the Indians, it might have been prompted as much by India&’s inflexibility as by a change in China&’s negotiating strategy. The official-level border talks had reached a stalemate partly because the negotiating stands of the two sides were asymmetrical. India-China relations reached a new low in August-September 1986, following Indian allegations about Chinese intrusions in the Sumdurong Chu Valley, which India claimed to be within its own territory. Sumdurong Chu is a small rivulet; to its west is the Bhutan border, and it has the Thagla Ridge in the north and the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the south. By the summer of 1985, India had set up a small civilian observation post on the southern side of the Sumdurong Chu Valley.
This was, incidentally, a disputed territory, in terms of interpretation of the McMahon Line. In a sense, India&’s move was based on a reinvention of the ‘forward’ policy. Sumdurong Chu was not an isolated incident and was the off-shoot of India&’s forward defence policy conceived in the early 1980s, with the approval of the Prime Minister, to reinforce and strengthen the defence of the forward areas. The observation post set up during the summer of 1985 remained unmanned during the winter, but when the personnel returned in July 1986, they were surprised to find a ‘sizeable number’ of Chinese engaged in the construction of a bunker and other structures, including a helipad. In 1981, India and China had agreed in principle to maintain peace and tranquillity along the border pending final settlement of the dispute. On 6 July 1986, in a protest note India accused China of transgression into Indian territory, which China denied. A Chinese News Service (CNS) statement of 22 August pointed out that as early as 16 July, the Chinese Foreign Minister had stated that the Sumdurong Chu Valley area had always been part of Chinese territory. It was further claimed that the disputed place was not only to the north of the traditional boundary between India and China, but also to the north of the LAC. The Indian government&’s stand was somewhat bizarre. On 27 July 1986, Gegong Apang, the then Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh, declared that the Chinese had built a helipad in the Sumdurong Chu Valley which was widely reported in the press. On 1 August, the External Affairs Minister denied this in the Rajya Sabha while on 5 August, the MoS, KR Narayanan, confirmed the presence of Chinese troops in the Sumdurong Chu Valley, inside Indian territory. This confusion was sought to be explained by arguing that parts of the Valley fall on both sides of the McMahon Line. According to this view, while the major part of the Valley is on the southern side, and therefore belongs to India, one segment is on the northern side. On 11 August, the then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, argued that since the McMahon Line had never been clearly drawn, it was necessary to have scientific mapping with ground photography to determine where the line actually lies. An Indian reporter wrote later that in Tawang there was no proof that Sumdurong Chu was included in any district or revenue map, thereby suggesting that it may be in disputed territory, well north of the McMahon Line. (The Statesman, 8 October 1986). Lack of information about the status and location of Sumdurong Chu Valley led to considerable confusion. It was worse confounded by the contradictory statements of the two ministers. Reports published in Indian newspapers in July 1986 indicated that the Chinese had established a military post in an area known as Sumdurong Chu Valley. Perhaps this was in response to the earlier Indian decision to set up a civilian observation post in a disputed area, left undisturbed since 1962.
Two other factors that had irked the Chinese were: (a) the decision of the Government of India in December 1986 to declare Arunachal Pradesh the 24th Indian state, comprising the territory of the former North East Frontier Agency (NEFA), apparently against the advice of the ‘professionals’ in the MEA; and (b) the start of military exercises on the India-China border codenamed ‘Operation Chequer Board’ (October 1986-March 1987), involving more than ten army divisions and elements of the air force. The Chinese reaction to these developments was sharp; its army was deployed in dangerous proximity to the Indians and a showdown seemed imminent. The Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping told Caspar Weinberger, the US Defence Secretary, who was on a visit to China, that India was ‘nibbling’ at Chinese territory and would be taught a lesson if it did not stop. Taking note of China&’s hardened stance and its military movements, New Delhi decided to reaffirm its commitment to resolve all disputes through peaceful means, to which the Chinese had also responded favourably. Through a fortuitous conjunction of events two senior Indian ministers transited through China ~ Defence Minister KC Pant in April and Foreign Minister ND Tiwari in June 1987 ~ and had the opportunity of conveying to the Chinese leaders India&’s desire for peace. This prepared the ground for the resumption of the official-level talks. This was followed by Rajiv Gandhi&’s visit to China in 1988 which paved the way for the development of wide-ranging cooperation between the two states in subsequent years.
The controversy that erupted over the presence of Chinese troops in the Daulat Bag Oldi area in the middle of April this year has to be seen in its proper perspective. Allegations about Chinese intrusions into what is claimed as Indian territory, all along the India-China border, are not new. One suspects the Chinese also have similar complaints against India, as was illustrated by the developments in the Sumdurong Chu Valley area in 1986. The latest scene of stand-off was in northern Ladakh in the Daulat Bag Oldi area where the terrain is rocky and full of ridges and since the LAC is not delineated, the rivulets or streams are often taken as the demarcating line. As an ITBP official told an Indian journalist: “Our posts are atop ridges facing each other; divided by a rivulet. Things were all quiet. They stuck to their side and timing of patrol, we stuck to ours’ (Times of India, Kolkata, 28 April 2013). Things began to change when the Chinese put up a temporary structure of stones and erected a tent; the Indians followed suit on their side of the rivulet and a few soldiers stayed back in the tent, lest the Chinese cross over. Once this was done, the Chinese went back, but returned in larger numbers to their post, on the other side of the rivulet. This, in short, was the story behind the recent stand-off. The Indians claimed that the Chinese soldiers were 19 kilometers inside Indian territory; the Chinese refuted this claim. Four rounds of talks were held between the local commanders to settle the issue, without any result. On 2 May, a spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, reiterated during a media briefing that the Chinese troops carry out normal patrols on the Chinese side of the LAC and expressed the hope that the tensions in bilateral relations between India and China ‘will be properly resolved through negotiations’. (The Statesman, 3 May, 2013). Her hopes were not entirely misplaced as within two days both sides decided to pull back their troops from the face-off point at Daulat Beg Oldi, thus clearing the air for the scheduled visit of the Indian External Affairs Minister to China. To be concluded…
The writer is retired Professor of International Relations and former Dean, Faculty of Arts, Jadavpur University