By Brigadier Vinod Dutta
In the past few days, following the Indo-China face-off in the Galwan River Valley, several TV channels approached me for my views on these developments as I have served in these areas and have thorough knowledge of the terrain as well as the tactics and the trends of the Chinese Army.
I thought it is important also to pen down my experiences of the ground realities of borders India shares with China so that readers can gain an understanding of the history of the Sino-Indian border disputes which have recurred on and off. India shares a border with China in five states, including Arunachal Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Sikkim and Uttarakhand.
The expansionist designs of China is not new and their attempts to claim territory beyond what is considered the boundaries has resulted in several skirmishes and has been one of the reasons for India’s relationship with China to be always strained, going up and down like a constantly moving see-saw. Indeed, the history of Chinese expansionism is very old. China’s colonial incursions throughout history should be looked at from the perspective of their intrusive policies.
The boundary disputes with China started way back in 1865 when the British Indian government drew up the Ardagh-Johnson Line proposed to it by London-based intelligence chief Major General John Ardagh who went by a set of surveys conducted by William Johnson in the Aksai Chin location. Subsequently, in 1899, the British Indian government proposed another border line to China, the Macartney-MacDonald Line of 1899, but since the Chinese did not respond to the proposal gradually it fizzled out. The line agreed upon between Great Britain, China and Tibet as part of the Simla Convention of 1914 was an ambiguous treaty concerning the status of Tibet. The Convention with annexes defined the boundaries between China and Tibet, Tibet and British India as mediated by British administrator Henry MacMahon and the line decided upon was known as the MacMahon Line. The ambiguity has resulted in differences of perspectives and disputes. This coupled with China’s aggressive expansionist policies has contributed to recurrent skirmishes. Historically the Chinese have grabbed large areas in Aksai Chin region and have refused to give it back. This had led to the 1962 Himalayan Conflict.
There have been a number of peace protocols and confidence building measures from 1996 onwards which have resulted in 22 rounds of high level meetings, but nothing fruitful has come of these.
The past decade has also seen China militarize the South China Sea (SCS). It is using the Communist Party of China (CPC) in projecting its power and even at a time when a pandemic has triggered a worldwide crisis, for which fingers have been pointed towards China itself, it continues to show its military prowess not only at the SCS but beyond.
In India the effect of this expansionist tendency has been and is being felt and Galwan Valley in eastern Ladakh is an indication of it. India records around 300 incursions by China’s People’s Liberation Army troops every year. 2017 saw the number shooting upto 426, the year Doklam was in the news. 23 intrusion points still remain disputed despite talks and dialogues.
But China is aware that a strategic aim in gaining physical territory against India is difficult to achieve and therefore it aims to extract tactical gains and this is what we saw in eastern Ladakh recently. The subsequent decision to pull back by Chinese Army and the softer tone and tenor of Chinese diplomatic statements initially showed prudence on the part of CPC and it was felt that they would be ready to work on deescalating the crisis. However, given past indiscretions, the Indian vigil needs to be stepped up. And my reading, going by the current happenings, is that it is going to be a long haul and a hot summer in Ladakh.
Brigadier Vinod Dutta is an Indian Army Kargil War veteran, who for long years was posted in Ladakh and the eastern borders. He is a defence and strategic affairs analyst and a visiting faculty at the Army War College. Views are personal.
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