This piece published in my ‘Realpolitik’ column in BloombergQuint, February 19, 2021, and available at https://www.bloombergquint.com/opinion/pangong-disengagement-is-india-accepting-chinas-1959-claim-line-as-formal-border
It is indicative of something that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has literally said not a word against China’s deliberately provocative behaviour and the aggressive military activity by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in eastern Ladakh since April last year. In the months since, the confrontation has sharpened with the Indian army – which’s traditionally focused on the minor foe, Pakistan, suddenly realizing it has another live border, this time with China, to contend with. It scrambled the best it could to pull together a credible force to the theatre in the higgledy-piggledy manner the usually unprepared Indian military behaves in a crisis.
Whether and how much of a worst case the Army assumed as its operational baseline for the purposes of filling the severely depleted WWR (war wastage reserve) of spares and petroleum, oil and lubricants and of war stock (ammunition of all kinds and chemical munitions), is unclear. But non-wartime shortfalls of around 60% are normal. The replenishment of these ‘voids’ was carried out frantically without the army really knowing whether the PLA would lurch into hostilities and then fight for how long. With the situation hotting up in the XIV Corps area, Modi maintained his public silence as did the Chinese President Xi Jinping at the other end of the redline telephone installed not too long ago between Delhi and Beijing. It was left to Defence Minister Rajnath Singh to mouth the traditional inanity about “not an inch of territory” being lost.
It is another matter that on the ground some 1,000 sq kms of land in the Depsang Plains are actually lost to China. This has been achieved by the simple expedience of the PLA blocking the Y-Junction and hence the route Indian troops took to reach Indian posts. Any piece of your land on the border you are denied access to isn’t yours anymore. And because the Indian army failed to breach the blockade because, per news reports, it didn’t want to “open another front”, it has lost that entire area to China for good. Elsewhere, we may soon find that with the Special Frontier Force (SFF) troops vacating the high points on the Rezang La-Rechin La ridge in the Kailash Range as required by the “verifiable” mutual withdrawal agreement, the PLA, which neither respects the letter nor the spirit of any accord, will occupy them too. The SFF at these heights severely discomfited the PLA because the Indians overlooked its garrison at Moldo and, from that perch, monitored Chinese military activity in the extended Pangong Lake area.
The most troubling aspect of the pullback accord, however, is how readily the Indian government accepted the Chinese offer to draw back its forces to the Sirijap expanse east of Finger 8 on the northern shore of the lake as some kind of concession by Beijing. This is a particularly surprising development considering the Indian claim line runs way east of Sirijap, even east of the landmark in that area, the dilapidated Khurnak Fort, which Indian and Chinese troops patrolled as late as 1958, and marks it as both the midpoint of the northern shore of the Pangong Tso and the mutually-recognized India-Tibet boundary. An Indian Brigade based in Chushul protected that entire territory and in 1962 1/8 Gorkha Rifles held the Khurnak post.
Indeed, India’s claims are really strong, bolstered by documents from as far back as 1863 showing the fertile Ote Plain featuring this fort as territory contested between the inhabitants of the Pangong area owing fealty to Ranbir Singh, the then Maharajah of Jammu & Kashmir, and the Tibetan authorities in Lhasa. This entire sub-region, in other words, was never part of Tibet even if one assumes, for argument sake, that China now exercises lawful suzerainty over Tibet.
In a November 1959 letter, Premier Zhouenlai first pitched to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru China’s extended claims not only in the Aksai Chin but also in eastern Ladakh – a sector well within the erstwhile Kashmir Maharaja’s domain and hence integrally part of India post-1947. Zhou did so to protect the highway the Chinese had surreptitiously built through northern Aksai Chin a year earlier connecting the mainland to the far western province of Xinjiang. In a tactic that Beijing has repeatedly used of annexing foreign territory, making extensive claims over it, and then offering to withdraw a small distance as a concession and demanding that the aggrieved country do the same, Zhou made just such an offer and was roundly rebuffed.
Recognizing the Chinese fait accompli for what it was, Nehru responded by saying “There is no sense or meaning in the Chinese offer to withdraw twenty kilometers from what they call ‘line of actual control’. What is this ‘line of control’? Is this the line they have created by aggression since the beginning of September? Advancing forty or sixty kilometers by blatant military aggression and offering to withdraw twenty kilometers provided both sides do this is a deceptive device which can fool nobody.” It is a line he never retreated from and, 50 years later, is proving a real problem for Modi.
PLA’s build-up and aggressive manuevers along the LAC in the last nine months or so intimidated Delhi but were insufficient to get Modi to buckle under pressure as Beijing had hoped would happen. The next best option that both Modi and Xi concurred in was to stitch together an accord for both leaders to ‘save face’ and so the unsatisfactory mutual withdrawal accord materialized.
Supposing this agreement is the basis for a final solution for the dispute along the lines of Zhouenlai’s 1959 claim line that bisects the area between mountainous terrain features Fingers 4 and Finger 5 on the northern Pangong shore and proceeds south across the lake to encompass the ridge heights from Helmet Top to Rezang La presently in Indian hands before slouching southeastwards to meet up with the Indian claim line, how will Modi get around the inconvenient fact that he will have surrendered an enormous amount of Indian territory here and in the Depsang, something Nehru – whom he, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, and its chief ideological influencer – Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh revile, never willingly did?