Festering frontier

India ought long ago to have called China‘s bluff whenever the latter infringed into territories perceived by India as its own. It was China that started this game of infrastructure development quite early in the narrative. When China built a 1200-km long road in 1956 across Aksai Chin, of which some 180-km was claimed by India, to carve a route for Sianking, its westernmost province, into Tibet, India was caught napping.

Festering frontier

The nearly 3,500-km-long LAC is the de-facto border between India and China. (File Photo: AFP)

It is hardly surprising that China is ratcheting up tensions along the LAC at a time when both India and China, along with the rest of the world, are fighting a pandemic. It is difficult to blame either country for the latest ferment on the border, but China is known to make frequent incursions across the LAC on the pretext of “differing perceptions”, expecting India to concur with its perceptions and not vice-versa.

China imagines that it can ramp up infrastructure right up to India’s neck, disdainfully dismissive of India’s territorial sensitivities. It raises a hue and cry whenever any Indian dignitary sets his foot on Arunachal Pradesh, or if India holds talks with Dalai Lama. But it has qualms in grabbing territory along the PoK, build the Karakoram Highway and indulge in acts of transgression.

Where is India at fault? The cardinal mistake lies in the fact that it did not up the ante as it was too weak and tentative when in 1963, a year after the Sino- Indian war, Pakistan ceded to China the Trans-Karakoram Tract, comprising Shaksgam from Baltistan and Raskam from Gilgit which we are yet to be recovered and which is as good as lost. Forget the dubiousness of China holding 20 per cent of Kashmir and Pakistan 35 per cent of it and the absurdity of Pakistan gifting away to China the Trans-Karakoram Tract.


Pakistan shows the Chinese-occupied Aksai Chin as part of the People’s Republic of China, while Beijing’s official maps depict the Pakistani-held portions of Kashmir (the socalled ‘Azad Kashmir’ and Northern Areas) as part of Pakistan and its own acquired Kashmir areas as PRC territory. P Stobdan, a distinguished academic, diplomat, author and national security expert, pointed out that more than 400 sq km of prime pasture land has been conceded by India to the aggressive neighbour in the Ladakh region.

The ulterior aim of China is to push India to the west of the river Indus. Between the 1980s and 2008, India lost 45×9 sq km of land in Ladakh to China, the larger ramification of which are the areas within India’s patrolling ambit in the 1980s effectively are now out of bounds. It is unlikely that the ministry of external affairs (MEA) and the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) are not seized of this “slow and steady landgrab” by China.

Security commentators have warned of regular incursions, strategically directed at the Siliguri corridor that connects India with its northeastern states, taking place in Bhutanese territory at the junction where the three countries meet. This is besides the incursions in the “finger area” in northern Sikkim, the most demonstrable proof of which was perhaps the Doklam incursion in 2017. That India and China have different perceptions of LAC is now as established as an axiom.

But the current site of confrontation relates to spurs or ‘fingers’ jutting out of Chang Chenmo, an eastern extension of the Karakoram Range, eight of which are disputed. India has maintained that the LAC passes through Finger 8, which has been the site of the final military post of China. The Finger 4 area in Pangong Lake remains a major area of contention. Between 1956, 1960 and 1962, as the Chinese forces captured new territory across the Kuen Lun, the Aksai Chin plateau and the Karakoram ranges, Chinese maps showed three distinct and advancing LACs, especially in the Ladakh sector.

Though the LAC established after the 1962 war has remained more or less stable, it has not been demarcated. Beijing has been allergic to demarcating the 3,448-km Line of Actual Control as it has existed on the Himalayan frontiers in spite of the 1993 and 1996 bilateral agreements to do so in order to maintain ‘peace and tranquillity’ on the border. And China has often used the ‘un-demarcated’ alibi as leverage against India in the past.

Brahma Chellaney in his book, Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India, and Japan (2010) explained how China’s policy of keeping unresolved the partially indistinct frontier fits well with its interests with respect to India. The status quo, according to him, helps to keep India under Chinese strategic pressure. Another reason is to keep a significant number of Indian troops bottled up along the Himalayas and thus away from the Pakistan frontier.

And the third reason is that in the event of India playing the Tibet card or forging an anti-China military alliance with the US, China can exercise the option of turning on the military heat along an uneasy frontier. To that one might add, China’s displeasure over Kashmir’s changed status and the desperate need to divert global criticism about its role in the global pandemic.

And for both two countries, a heated border is a convenient diversionary tactic in a post-Covid world to deflect critical attention from the monumental mismanagement of public health issues and the economic implications. China has held regular rounds of dialogue with India since 1981 to settle the festering Himalayan frontier disputes but even four decades of continuous negotiations and three border- related accords ~ the 1993 agreement to maintain ‘peace and tranquillity along the Line of Actual Control’, the 1996 ‘confidencebuilding measures in the military field’, and the 2005 deal identifying six ‘guiding principles’ for a settlement of the frontier disputes ~ failed to yield a mutually defined line of control separating them.

Tibet’s annexation gave China, for the first time in its long history, a contiguous border with India, Myanmar, Bhutan and Nepal, the strategic implication of which is understood by how China’s border provocations continued apace with India lagging behind economically and militarily. Since the stand-off in Ladakh seems to stem from China moving in troops to obstruct road construction activities in India, the latter’s infrastructure development has been sluggish.

India had a better infrastructure in 1950, a gap closed by China by 1980. In terms of border infrastructure, India completed the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulet Beg Oldi (DBO) road which connects Leh to the Karakoram Pass only last year. That the dynamics along the LAC need to be changed dawned on India quite late in the day. We have heard that the Chinese incursion into the DBO sector of eastern Ladakh was aimed at exerting pressure on India to agreeing to some of its demands ~ dismantle its bunkers and other infrastructure, such as sophisticated surveillance equipment and posts and also freeze some of the constructions ~ in the sensitive Chumar sector of southeastern Ladakh that China ‘regards’ as part of its territory.

The bottomline is that China always expects India to be ‘sensitive’ towards its territorial fancies while consistently flouting Indian sensitivities at will. India must stand firm on its ground that China has no right to stop India from carrying out the same activities related to infrastructure development and must make it recognise the right to mutual and equal security of the two sides. India ought long ago to have called China’s bluff whenever the latter infringed into territories perceived by India as its own.

It was China that started this game of infrastructure development quite early in the narrative. When China built a 1200 km-long road in 1956 across Aksai Chin, of which some 180 km was claimed by India, to carve a route for Sianking, its westernmost province, into Tibet, India was caught napping. It got the news only after reading Chinese newspapers of this “remarkable” piece of engineering.

Years later it went ahead with its China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that passes through PoK with the same brutish disregard for Indian sovereignty claims, a nationalist India looking as feckless as ever, never being able to raise a howler with the same fever pitch as China did. Today, sharing one of the world’s longest frontiers, China and India are the only two countries without a fully defined frontline. It is quite natural that China would be opposed to the massive programme undertaken by India to modernise its own internal connectivity on the Chinese border as well as trans-border connectivity with the smaller neighbours to the north.

Following China’s rapid modernisation of its boundary infrastructure in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Yunnan, India must keep on embarking on a similar effort in its border areas. India has not been able to keep pace with China’s rail network through Tibet and Xinjiang, and its road networks that began to link up with India’s neighbours. Since this attitude of an irredentist China comes out of a mixture of smug superiority of one’s military and diplomatic prowess and a puffed-up nationalism, any capitulation to China’s terms will run counter to India’s national interest.

(The writer is a Kolkata based commentator on politics, development and cultural issues)