Old soldiers having seen the carnage and horrors of war often turn pacifists, however, given their experience, understanding of the consequences of conflict and the politico-military ends achieved against the costs of war, may be better positioned to evaluate the entire gamut of conflict initiation and resolution.

Based on imperial British cartographic declarations of shifting boundaries in the Western Sector, India inherited and chose to persist with the whole of Aksai Chin being part of erstwhile Kashmir State, integrated into India in 1947, as per the Johnson Line of 1865, whereas the physical boundary of Kashmir State lay along the Karakoram ridge line and was expressed in the 1899 MacDonald Line.

In 1962, the People’s Liberation Army advanced up to the 1899 MacDonald Line and is generally now the Chinese claim line as was also articulated in 1959 and physically occupied now.

The Chinese Highway 219, vital for linking Sinkiang and Tibet, both restive provinces, and for effective control over Tibet, was constructed within their 1959 claim line. The Chinese claim line of 1959 and proposal of 1982 emphasise this ground reality and is very unlikely to be given up.

Our claims in Aksai Chin are totally irreconcilable with Chinese objectives. By simply claiming Aksai Chin without any means to reclaim it is meaningless. The Chinese may be willing to accept the MacMohan Line in the East simply and realistically because our claim and physical control are congruent and reciprocally its forced occupation by China would involve a heavy cost and perhaps consequences.

For China, Aksai Chin is a strategic issue impinging on their core national interest and maintaining their hold on Sinkiang and Tibet. For India its political, more specifically a domestic political construct. Domestic political mileage and survival overrides all else.

Nations go to war or use military force to either secure their core or vital national interests or when these are threatened. Wars are not fought for the sake of fighting. ‘Cut your coat according to your cloth’, they say. Who better to advise on the cloth than the tailor? Similarly, when military options are talked about it should be with due consideration of military capabilities, views and consequences. As the French Prime Minister before and during World War I remarked, ‘War is too serious a matter to entrust to military men’, it can equally be said that it is too serious a business to be left to the politicians alone.

The probability of India securing Aksai Chin militarily is next to nil. The sheer magnitude of logistics to negotiate the Great Himalayan chain before reaching the Tibetan Plateau for projecting and maintaining any worthwhile force would be daunting and precarious. The harsh high-altitude terrain is another matter. Even if India were to do so, it would impinge on China’s core national interest and trigger escalation to use of all force and means available.

The costs for securing it would be ruinous. Having secured Aksai Chin it would not rest at that. It would be a major bone of contention prompting long term military confrontation and costs. How would it serve our core national interest? Nevertheless, we can and will hold what we are presently holding. Any attempt at deep ingress by the adversary would impinge on our core security interests and would not be without heavy cost to him.

Any talk of acquiring Aksai Chin diplomatically is impractical and can only help keep a dialogue going with no end results. On the other hand, we let go our leverages by giving up our consulates and garrisons in Tibet and Chumbi Valley, accepted Tibet as part of China, tacitly supported Chinese stand on Taiwan and side lined the Dalai Lama.

Then what are the benefits for India for persisting with and securing this claim? Perhaps nothing more than adding two more Ladakhs with attendant constraints of altitude and no local resources whatever to sustain it.

Contrary to popular public perception that a strong leader could settle the issue with China and sell it to the public, the opposite may be true. Seven decades of nationalist jingoism and emotional rhetoric cannot be undone unilaterally. No leader, no matter how strong, would be able to counter the opposition clamour of ‘sell out’. Political survival at home is paramount. It may perhaps be an all-party coalition which can arrive at a consensus to settle the dispute pragmatically and in national interest without the existing domestic political posturing and bindings and explain it to their respective constituencies.

Notwithstanding any settlement, China will remain a challenge which will have to be met with adequate military preparedness and in the fields of economics, diplomacy, international relations, trade agreements and linkages and so on. Nevertheless, the costs would be productive and not destructive. Others areas like status of Tibet, Taiwan, freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and so on can be exploited in conformity with our objectives, if required.

Should the professional opinion of the incumbent military, diplomatic, intelligence and security heads be different, it would be worth considering whether they are articulating what the leadership wants to hear and is not a compromised opinion as it was pre1962.

Lt Gen NS Brar (Retd) is former Deputy Chief Integrated Defence Staff and Member Armed Forces Tribunal

Cover Photograph: India-China war games in Pune,2016 - Joint Military exercise ‘Hand in Hand’