The Hat Throwers

The Ladakh crisis shows that China’s policy towards India is shaped by its military power

Pravin Sawhney

Describing China’s approach to border disputes, a foreign diplomat once said, “A Chinese stands on the border and takes a broad sweep of the neighbour’s land. Then he takes off his hat and throws it across the border. A while later he points to the hat on the neighbour’s land and says, ‘that hat has been there since antiquity. It proves that this has historically been my land’.”

Former defence minister A.K. Antony and COAS Gen. Deepak Kapoor being greeted by a Chinese soldier at Nathu La

Then posted in Delhi, the diplomat had several years of experience negotiating with the Chinese and knew more than a thing about their negotiating skills.

As the Ladakh crisis becomes even more protracted than initially expected, the hat analogy sums up India’s dilemma. Howsoever the negotiations between India and China unfold, two stark realities are obvious: The existing diplomatic framework crafted by the 1993 agreement of peace and tranquillity for containing volatility of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) has been jettisoned by China. Moreover, the illusion of Indian Army’s two-front war capability created in 2009 has been shattered. A reset is needed.

The PLA has ruled out status quo ante to April 2020 position. According to sources, de-escalation or pulling back of forces including tanks, artillery guns, air defence equipment, electronic warfare vehicles etc will only happen once the Indian Army signs the minutes conforming to PLA’s new positions on the ground. And signing it is the biggest roadblock to de-escalation.

In the last four months, China has moved the LAC as agreed to in the 1993 agreement well inside Indian territory. This ranges from 1.5km in some places to 4.5km in others. And as it usually does, China has offered a legal argument to justify its new positions on the ground. It says that the 1993 agreement, which created the LAC, was merely a legal document, signed by the two countries to maintain peace and tranquillity. The Line itself was created in 1959 (albeit unilaterally) when Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai wrote to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru offering a package deal for border resolution. In that letter he had mentioned a ‘line of control’ in Ladakh offering grid references as to where this line runs on the ground. This line, the Chinese maintain, has been their consistent claim line in Ladakh, and this is where the LAC runs.

According to the Chinese version, in 1993, both sides signed the agreement on the LAC without demarcation and delineation (neither on the maps nor on the ground), for the simple objective of peace. The line which India believed to be the LAC according to the 1993 agreement is not the real thing as it is way east to the 1959 claim line and was basically the ground position of the two sides at that point. Hence, in the Chinese narrative, instead of China occupying Indian territory, latter has been nibbling at former’s land. Given this, the 1993 peace agreement and all other follow-on agreements—1996, 2003, 2005, 2012 and 2013—should apply to the 1959 LAC, unilaterally decided by China. By delinking the 1993 agreement from the creation of the LAC, China has effectively eviscerated the line which was the border for all practical purposes for the last 27 years and was known to the Indian Army as the LAC. The Indian ministry of external affairs’ statement that the 1993 LAC alignment is known to India and the Indian Army never violated it has to be seen in this context.

The present reality in Ladakh, however, is even more complex. In 1960, taking forward the Zhou-Nehru correspondence, India and China held a series of discussions on the LAC. The maps that the Chinese interlocutors showed to their Indian counterparts marked the LAC substantially west of the 1959 claim line. The talks were unsuccessful and the matter of LAC rested there, the 1962 war notwithstanding. On May 5, laying claim to the 1959 line, the PLA crossed the 1993 LAC and came well inside what was known to India as Indian land. Furthermore, in certain areas it crossed its 1959 claim line as well, coming into areas that the 1960 maps showed as LAC.

And that is the reason, why from the Indian perspective, de-escalation will not only be long drawn, but extremely difficult too. The gap between two perspectives is simply too vast. For instance, the PLA has blamed the Indian Army for the June 15 Galwan killings. It says that in the June 6 corps commanders meeting, the terms of disengagement were discussed and agreed upon. It was told to the Indian side that the estuary in the Galwan valley was the 1959 LAC, and both sides could set up tents for observation on either side of it. Yet, on the evening of June 15, the Indian soldiers, in violation of the agreement dismantled the PLA tents leading to the unfortunate killings which neither side wanted. To buttress their argument, the Chinese side point to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s June 19 statement that no one has intruded, nor is sitting on Indian territory. Resulting in lack of mutual trust, this has been a setback to the disengagement process, the Chinese have told the Indian interlocutors.

Sitting snug on the Indian territory in Ladakh—covering the entire arc from Depsang to Demchok—and having given the terms for peace to the Indian interlocutors, China awaits Delhi’s response with possibility of walking back half-way.

Clearly, China has turned the tables on India. Used to taking a long-term view, China had outsmarted India in the signing of the 1993 agreement. To understand the enormity of the quagmire that India finds itself in today, it is important to recall how exactly the 1993 LAC came about and what propelled India to sign upon a line without delineating or demarcating it.

Interestingly, many of these details have been given in the book ‘Choices’ written by former National Security Advisor, Shivshankar Menon, both the originator and the most vocal supporter of the 1993 agreement. Even in 1992-93, Menon had the reputation of being a China expert in the Indian foreign service, having spent nearly eight years in that country over two postings.

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