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What the recent skirmish along the China-India border has undoubtedly established is that India’s policy ennui is not working any more.
On April 15, some 40 Chinese soldiers pitched their tents 19 kilometres into the Indian territory of Raki Nala in the eastern Ladakh region of the Great Himalaya Mountains.
A face-off ensued when the Indian Army then set up their tents 500 metres away from the Chinese.
On May 5, both armies pulled back their forces after mutual agreement.
But Beijing’s actions in the past few weeks have shaken New Delhi out of a comfortable inertia.
In the recent years leading up to the Raki Nala standoff – probably the most high profile confrontation since the near war in the Sumdorong Chu Valley in 1987 – Indian leaders had lulled themselves into believing that the Line of Actual Control (LAC) – the China-India 4,057-kilometre border – will not change:
They believed that LAC would not deteriorate into the conflict-fraught LoC (Line of Control with Pakistan).
Indeed, those in the Indian administration who dictate Pakistan and Kashmir policies have often cited a “peaceful LAC” as an illustration of how India’s boundary should be – “unsettled”.
But the Chinese tents which went up in the dry rivulet of Raki Nala appear to have achieved their raison d’être.
In the days since the tents went up, India has agreed to discuss a Border Defence Cooperation Agreement that China proposed a month-and-half before the Chinese People’s Liberation Army trekked in to Raki Nala.
India has no one but itself to blame for its current predicament.
Successive governments in New Delhi have despite everything continued willy-nilly with the ghost of Captain Younghusband and Lord Curzon, head of the British India government in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and their misconceived attempts at the time to protect the British Raj from Russia.
Lord Curzon ordered the ‘invasion’ of Tibet on the fears that it was about to ally with Russia, which could have threatened British India. The campaign yielded no worthwhile results for London (China annexed Tibet after World War Two) and ended in an irrelevant treaty.
However, what separates the British approach from the current Indian one is that the British were willing to make amends; India is not.
In the 1913-14 Simla Convention, British India accepted that Aksai Chin, an area disputed between China and India, was part of Tibet.
It is difficult to say what could have promoted an otherwise wise leader like Jawaharlal Nehru to lay claim over the area in the 1950s.
Perhaps, politics and the lack of tall leadership in New Delhi lie at the core of this decision. No government in India has ever tried to engage the people-at-large in a debate with the motive of informing them that India’s claim over Aksai Chin isn’t very strong and perhaps even arbitrary.
More importantly, no government has tried to build a consensus that a resolution of the China-India border issue will require some give-and-take compromising of territory. Lack of political maneuverability has New Delhi in a bind.
To be fair, China has shown much more flexibility. It has given ample indication to India in the last 60 years that it is willing to concede to India in the east, if India were to re-consider its claim over Aksai Chin.
Aksai Chin is crucial to China not only because it skirts the Karakorum Highway – which connects Pakistan to China through the Karakorum Mountains in the north – but also because it connects Tibet and Xinjiang region in the northwest.
Furthermore, in the first ever “Blue Book” on India, Beijing appears to have toned down its aggression over Arunachal Pradesh – an area in northeast India which both sides claim and which witnessed much of the bitter war in 1962.
Of course, during the brouhaha over the recent standoff, New Delhi and the Indian media, perhaps to its own peril, discovered they had an abundance of “China experts”.
The immediate provocation for China to set up camp in Raki Nala appears to be seven bunkers that the Indian Army was constructing in the Chumar sector in violation of existing agreements.
All eyes, then, will be on Chinese Premier Li Keqiang , the second most important figure in China’s new leadership, when he arrives in India on May 19 in his first official visit abroad.
He is likely to want the LAC to be part of the buffet that New Delhi had planned to serve during his visit. Whether curry mixes with Chow mein remains to be seen.
Two days after the Chinese tents at Raki Nalla were taken down and troops withdrawn, a top official in New Delhi said “we are still analysing the reasons for the incursion, but we are inclined to believe that they (China) want us to bring [discussion of] the LAC out of the back burner”.
Beginning with New Delhi’s Foreign Office’s PAIS (Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran) desk, that argument has begun to falter.
In the meantime, China is turning the Karakorum Highway, at least on its side, into an all-weather road.
Add to that the announcement from former Indian Army Chief V K Singh to the Indian public that Chinese military engineers are in Gilgit and Baltisthan, part of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) – an area that the Indian Parliament has resolved to claim.
In other words, while China and Pakistan are finding convergent interest across the Karakorum Highway, the Foreign Office in New Delhi is yet to reconcile the head of the PAI desk with the Head of East Asia desk.
The divide runs wider and deeper, and flows right into the schism between the Ministry of the Defence and the Ministry of Home Affairs.
The Army claims incursions like that of April 15 happen because it doesn’t have operational control over the Indo-Tibetan Border Police – a para-military force that is designated to guard the India-China border.
On the other hand, the Ministry of Home Affairs argues against the army’s possessiveness about boundaries.
Such is the environment that awaits Le Keqiang in New Delhi.
Unlike External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid’s visit to Beijing, which provided him with no answers about the April 15 incursion, Li Keqiang will likely scissor the fat of emotion and get to the bone.
Beijing is sick of New Delhi’s languor. “Settle the borders, we want to determine where China ends and India begins. You want to keep it ambiguous.” That is likely to be Premier Li’s categorical statement.
This ups India’s ante. New Delhi wanted this visit to focus on trade, on how Chinese markets could be opened up to more Indian goods and services. The incursion at Raki Nala has made it possible for Beijing to disrupt the Indian government’s approach.
In other words, Beijing is saying we have your money so let us not discuss it; but you have our borders so let us talk about it. The borders are not China’s alone, however, as they are also shared by Tibet, and with a mixed ethnicity and religiosity in China’s autonomous region of Xinjing.
China drubbed India in war after the Indian military found that it had connected Xinjiang and Tibet through territory claimed by India.
Look at the map, look at the topography, see the ranges spiraling out of the Pamir mountain range in Central Asia, and try untangling the knot.
Forbidding as it may be, there is a way to scale the Pamir Knot. Bar the last 60 odd years, neither the treacherously high ranges of the PamirMountains (nor their off-shoots such as the Karakorum) or the Himalayas have stopped exchanges between India and China.