August - 2012 Issue
Force Magazine
China Has Shrunk the Border
While for us the border is 4,056km, Beijing insists it is 2,000km only

Major General Yao Yunzhu, Senior Colonel Geng Yansheng, Colonel Yang Yujun, Senior Colonel Ouyang Wei and Senior Colonel Xu Weidi holding the FORCE 100th issue


Beijing: The opportunity to ask hard questions on the bilateral border dispute came on the afternoon of June 18 at the Chinese Ministry of National Defence (MND) information office. There were eight People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officers from the information office, PLA Academy of Military Sciences and the PLA National Defence University poised to take questions. My three questions for them were: What is the length of China’s border with India? What about Indian allegations of PLA transgressions into Indian territories? (Defence minister A.K. Antony recently informed the Parliament in writing that there were 228 cases of Chinese intrusions into India in 2010, 213 cases in 2011, and 64 cases until April 2012). And, what is the way forward on the border issue?

After a brief consultation amongst themselves the first question was taken by Colonel Guo Hongtao, staff officer of the Asian Affairs Bureau, Foreign Affairs Office, MND. He said, “The border question is about four lines. The first is China’s traditional claim line, which is 2,000km long. The 
second is the line claimed by India, the so-called McMahon Line, which is longer. The third line is the line presently held by both sides (Line of Actual Control). Because of these three different lines, we can say that India has done more transgressions than the Chinese side. The fourth line is about Sikkim. China in 2004 has replaced the China-Sikkim border with the India-Sikkim border.”

My other questions were clubbed together and replied by Major General Yao Yunzhu, director of the Centre on China-American defence relations, PLA Academy of Military Sciences. According to her, “India has done more ingressions into China than China has done into India. But, ingressions are not important. These are because both sides have different perceptions of the border. Both sides have agreed to have a peaceful border. As border is one of the issues between us, the focus should not be on it. The Indian media and elite do not have a positive idea (attitude) of the relations. This should change. Both sides should exercise ‘strategic patience’ for the way forward.”

Two days later, on the afternoon of June 20, when visiting the information office of the ministry of foreign affairs, I once again brought up the border issue with a dual purpose. It was to elicit response of China’s foreign affairs ministry and to compare any variations with MND. What came my way was a long speech by Ma Jisheng, the deputy director general, information department, ministry of foreign affairs, a veteran who joined service in early Eighties and has been witness to the rise of China and the concomitant need for political and diplomatic transparency.
He told me that, “All reports (in the Indian media) on Chinese transgressions are false. The border issue is difficult and is not likely to be resolved soon. It is wise for both sides to spend more time on the political and diplomatic issues between us. Once we have more cooperation and mutual understanding, we will have the magic to solve the border issue. For people who have misgivings, it is difficult to solve their problems. But for people who like one another, it is easy to solve problems. Therefore, we should keep the border issue on one track. On another track, we should keep working in other areas, trade for example. We should seek happiness, which will help us solve difficult problems. I believe the trade issue will help us solve the border issue through time. On the border issue, we have made some progress in the last 10 years. But difficulties remain high. We need patience. A watermelon when it is ripe falls automatically. Maybe, the time is not ripe for the border issue. The future generation will have more wisdom to solve the border problem. China has so far solved its border problem with 10 countries including Russia. This was done by a two-track approach. While keeping the negotiations going on the border issue, we sought cooperation in other areas. We should do the same and continue with mutual cooperation.”

The Chinese cannot be more unambiguous. They have said that their disputed border with India is 2,000km long. The total of the Middle sector (554km), Sikkim (198km) and the Eastern sector (Arunachal Pradesh 1,226km) comes to 1,978km or 2,000km when rounded off. India, on the other hand, has never said but maintains that its border with China is 4,056km long. (The 2001 Border Management report under former Union home secretary Madhav Godbole constituted by the government of India in Cabinet Secretariat order number C-182/1/2000-NSCS (CS) dated 16 May 2000 refers to the India-China border as 4,056km long). border as 4,056km long).

We have a 2,000km border with China along the tri-junction of Afghanistan-Pakistan-Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK), Afghanistan-Xinjiang-POK, the Shaksgam valley, the Western sector with China, ending at Demchok in Ladakh. With their current politely worded line, the Chinese are obliquely suggesting that India no longer has a border with China in POK and Ladakh — which have now been designated as disputed areas between India and Pakistan by Beijing. India has been told to not only forgo its claims on Aksai Chin (occupied in September 1957 by China) and the Shaksgam valley (ceded by Pakistan to China in 1963); it has also been informed that POK and by extension Kashmir held by India are disputed territories.

For this reason, Beijing had refused a visa in 2010 to the then Northern Army commander, Lt. General B.S. Jaswal who was heading a military delegation to China. When I asked during the July 18 interaction at MND information office, why was this done, Colonel Guo Hongtao said, “The general was posted in Kashmir (a disputed area) and we had to keep Pakistan’s sensitivity in mind. We offered a compromise to India that Jaswal should be made a member instead of the head of delegation but the Indian side refused.” Similarly, China insisted that Group Captain M. Panging, who belongs to
Arunachal Pradesh and was a member of a 30-member Indian military delegation visiting China in January 2012, did not require a visa to travel. India however decided to exclude the officer from the delegation rather than allow him to travel without a visa to China. The two instances are proof, if indeed one was needed, that China claims the entire 90,000sqkm Arunachal Pradesh as its territory (it is called Zang Nan meaning south Tibet). In any case, the Chinese ambassador in India had in 2006 publicly laid claims over Arunachal Pradesh. And the POK and the entire western sector are disputed borders with Pakistan. Hence, India does not have a border with China in this sector. This probably also explains the Chinese position that India has intruded more into their territories than the other way around; after all, a large number of Indian security forces are in Arunachal Pradesh.
Ma Jisheng
BeijingBeijing announced its present stance of the border being a mere 2,000km long in 2010, months before Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s visit to India in December same year. It is, however, no surprise that India has maintained a stoic silence on the new Chinese claims which have grave national security implications. India’s stance is consistent with its appeasement policy towards China since 1988 when Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi became the first head of government to visit China after the 1962 war.

The last time China had offered to resolve the border was on 21 June 1980. In an interview to Krishan Kumar, chief editor of Defence News, Deng Xiaoping spoke of a settlement: “According to the Line of Control, for instance, in the Eastern sector, we can recognise the existing status quo, I mean the so-called McMahon line. But in the Western sector, the Indian government should also recognise the existing status quo. I think you can pass this message to Mrs (Indira) Gandhi.”

The timing from China’s standpoint was propitious. Deng had finally returned to power in 1978 after a long exile and the passing away of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. At the December 1978 plenum of the 11th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, Deng managed to bid goodbye to the Mao era and gave the call for ‘reforms and opening up under the four modernisation programmes’. China, with 12 disputed borders (many more territorial claims), needed peace for its socialistic reforms. Deng, meanwhile, was impressed by Mrs Indira Gandhi. Her firm handling of the 1971 war with Pakistan and the passage of the 38th amendment bill in the Indian Parliament on 23
April  1975 which merged Sikkim as the 22nd state of the Union of India, despite Chinese protests, did not go unnoticed by Deng. Mrs Gandhi has probably been the only Prime Minister since Independence who understood that talks with Pakistan and China, without a credible military muscle, remain meaningless. And the Chinese understand power too well. While talks on the border issue between India and China began in December 1981, given her domestic compulsion, Mrs Gandhi could not visit China. Her successor, Rajiv Gandhi visited China in December 1988, but things had altered by then. The 1986 Sumdorong Chu crisis between India and China had hardened Beijing’s position. This small incident will be recorded in history as the turning point in relations between India and China, and a roadblock to India’s rise in this century.


The Sumdorong Chu crisis was part of India’s military activism in the Eighties under Rajiv Gandhi-General K. Sundarji team, which witnessed Operation Brass-Tacks (against Pakistan), exercise Chequerboard and Operation Trident (against China), and Operation Pawan (against Sri Lanka). One day, in June 1986, a small Indian Intelligence Bureau detachment at Sumdorong Chu (close to Nymjang Chu in North Kameng) left its post, to collect salaries and rations. On return, they found that the Chinese had occupied it and refused to vacate it. This place had witnessed the rout of India’s 7th brigade in the 1962 war and to be sure, the PLA had warned India not to occupy this area. Instead of diffusing the situation, the army chief General Sundarji escalated matters. At the peak of the crisis in 1987, India moved three divisions forward to the McMahon line and China amassed its 63rd field army from the Chengdu military region. While the crisis was diffused with sense prevailing in Delhi and Beijing, the year-long movement of forces, equipment and ammunition by both sides convinced China that it needed to develop military capabilities in the region. A territorial swap for border resolution was not possible any longer. Incidentally, the disputed post which had little tactical value for India but had an observation value for China, remained with the PLA till 1995, when in a show of generosity PLA gave the post back to India which Delhi hailed as a major victory.
China’s intentions, of course, were not understood in India. K. Natwar Singh, the minister of state for foreign affairs, who took credit for the successful visit of Prime Minister Gandhi to China in December 1988 in his book, ‘My China Diary 1956-88’ should have known better. Especially when the chief minister of Bengal Jyoti Basu, who had visited China in June 1988 told him that, “China is in no hurry to solve the border problem but is keen to improve relations in other fields.” It should have occurred to Delhi why Deng refused to talk border resolution with a Prime Minister having 413 Congress Members of Parliament in the Lok Sabha? What had happened between 1980 and 1988 to make China change its mind? This is not all. The peculiarity of the disputed border between India and China is that it is neither delimited (agreed) on maps, nor demarcated (accepted) on the ground. Thus, when the PLA started building infrastructure in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) beginning 1989, alarm bells should have rung in Delhi. After all, the side with better military capability could alter the Line of Actual Control, which by definition is a military-held line, for tactical advantage and generate psychological pressure on the other side.

Unfortunately, a myth was created about Prime Minister Gandhi’s successful China visit. Thereafter, all Indian Prime Ministers who visited China have endeavoured to do one better, even if it meant appeasement by unilateral concessions. A retired foreign secretary told FORCE a few years ago that the ministry of external affairs is always under pressure to show sizeable gains during a Prime Ministerial visit to China. The visits of Prime Ministers P.V. Narasimha Rao, A.B. Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh to China vindicate his astute observation. The reluctant foreign minister of the 1988 Rajiv Gandhi visit to China, Prime Minister Narasimha Rao signed the ‘Border Peace and Tranquillity Agreement’ (BPTA) during his September 1993 China visit. The entire disputed border was renamed the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Hitherto, the LAC was a 320km stretch from Daulat Beg Oldie to Demchok in Ladakh. The remaining border was referred to as the traditional one by
India. This move was interpreted by Delhi as its victory: instead of the entire border, both sides could now solve the border progressively in three parts (western, middle and eastern sectors) and make it peaceful.

In reality, this worked to China’s advantage with two major negatives for India. One, with the entire border made into LAC, PLA intrusions increased manifold. Between 1962 and 1993, there have been two border skirmishes/ show of strength incidents: the 1967 series of firings at Nathu La and Cho La in Sikkim and the 1986 Sumdorong Chu crisis. After 1993 and especially after the 1998 nuclear tests by India when relations between the two countries dipped, Chinese intrusions and claims of disputed areas have grown with each passing year. This was because China focussed on its border management while India remained comatose. And two, the creation of the LAC and the need to make it peaceful pushed the border resolution further away. It no longer appeared a priority.

Similarly, Prime Minister Vajpayee’s visit to China in July 2003 did not help India’s case. In return for the formal acknowledgement that Tibet is a part of China, all it got were Chinese maps showing Sikkim as part of India. During my recent visit to Beijing, PLA officer Colonel Hongtao did say that ‘Sikkim-China’ has been replaced by ‘Sikkim-India’. But all that China has really done is to show Sikkim and India in the same colour coding on its maps. The other major step was the agreement, at India’s request, to discuss border resolution at the political level (special representatives). This was in addition to the bureaucratic level continuing with peace on the LAC under the 1993 agreement. This did not help.

On the one hand, with two parallel tracks, the lesser bureaucratic track lost its importance. On the other hand, China’s spectacular rise, fast-changing geopolitics and importantly, the Manmohan Singh government’s willingness to focus on bilateral trade, pushed border resolution to a low priority. The border resolution no longer appeared India’s core interest area. Finally at the 15th round of Special Representatives (SR) talks in January 2012, it became evident that solving the border was not the urgency. The SRs signed the diplomatic framework to maintain stability on LAC, raising the level of the task earlier being done by bureaucrats. By focussing on bilateral trade (expected to reach USD 100 billion before 2015) and saddling the SRs with a new job, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has given China an unambiguous signal, that border resolution could wait for another time. This policy will have severe negative national security implications for India, now and into the future.

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