Piecemeal Peace Can Only Benefit China
Deal should be for the entire disputed border
The one thing tried and tested diplomats are not supposed to do is use wrong words that convey or signal the wrong message, and provide ammunition to the adversary.
In the wake of the verified pullback (begun Sept 8, completed Sept 12) by Indian and Chinese PLA troops from the Gogra and Hot Springs areas of Ladakh, the external affairs minister S Jaishankar said this yesterday, to quote him in toto: "You have heard me speak many times about the border. I don't think I would say anything new there today, except I would recognise that we had disengagement at P[atrolling]P[oint]-15 and the disengagement as I understand was completed and that is one problem less on the border."
The inelegance of his statement [sure, it was extemporaneous, but diplomats are supposed to be able to think on their feet and, at all times, speak carefully] — repetition of words (engagement) and wrong construction ("new there" — where?; "new" about the "border" is, perhaps, what he meant to say) apart, what the minister said is disturbing, more so in light of the MEA spokesman's statement of Sept 9 elaborating on the short press release issued a day earlier.
Take the most important point in the MEA statement, that India and China will "cease forward deployments in this area in a phased, coordinated and verified manner, resulting in the return of the troops of both sides to their respective areas." What are the "respective areas" being referred to here? The area to which Indian units have retreated to are, of course, in India. But so is the "area" the PLA troops have got back to!
Thus, the Indian government has implicitly accepted a Ladakh remapped by China! Worse, another point in this MEA statement commits India to ensuring that there will be no attempt unilaterally to change the new "status quo" that's obtained.
A third important point promises talks to "resolve the remaining issues along LAC and restore peace and tranquility in India-China border areas", including the PPs 10, 11, 12, 13, presumably, along the same lines. With the PLA controlling the Y-Junction — the entry point, as it were, to the Depsang Bulge adjoining the Xinjiang Highway, Indian units cannot access these areas.
The question to ask the GOVERNMENT, therefore, is this: Has it first of all accepted the Chinese 1959 claim line? This latest agreement would suggest it has. It means New Delhi, in effect. has formally renounced India's historic border with China. China has offered the solution of a buffer zone to be implemented piecemeal — as a means of separating the two armies and avoiding hostile encounters of the 2020 Galwan kind.
One such partial buffer zone was earlier established with the Tibetan exiles-manned Special Frontier Force units climbing down from Rezang La, and other posts on the Kailash Range heights in exchange for the PLA withdrawing from the Finger 3 terrain feature on the northern shore of the Pangong Tso. That was a bum deal.
Now another swath of land running across Gogra and Hot Springs too is a buffer. Once fully negotiated, Beijing hopes the buffer zone would stretch all the way from the Depsang to the Pangong Lake. In fact, senior army officers indicate that the PLA commander at the recent 16th session of the corps level army commanders' meeting communicated that China may consider vacating the Depsang Plains in return for India accepting such a buffer zone. The former Northern Army commander, Lt Gen HS Panag, too hints that such an arrangement may be in the works in his article in The Print.
Presently, there are three claim lines — one that India has historically recognized as the Sino-Indian boundary (and so identified in the map below).
The second line is the 1959 Chinese claimline (dotted yellow line) incorporating the entire mass of territory in northeastern Ladakh and Indian Aksai Chin totaling some 1,000 sq kms.
And the third line is the Line of Actual Control (in red). Except there is a belt of Indian territory between the second and the third lines the Chinese have intruded into and are negotiating about.
They would like to see this in-between territory converted into a Depsang to Pangong Tso buffer zone, in effect, a de-militarized zone (DMZ) a'la the 38th Parallel in Korea delineated for military reasons by US President Harry Truman, the Soviet jefe maximo, Josef Stalin, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the post-WW II Potsdam Conference in July 1945.
[Map of contested Ladakh & Aksai Chin. Source: The Print]
It is in this context, that Jaishankar's comment of "one problem less on the border" merits concern. Look at the map again. Would any government sign away India's sovereignty on so large a piece of national territory without making a case for it, and participating in informed debates within Parliament and outside just because the Prime Minister needed to create a conducive milieu for his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Samarkand?
The Chinese are seemingly working on the principle that what's mine is mine, what's yours is also mine barring what you are ready to fight for, and India on the basis that whatever I can get from China is fine.
Over the years,this fairly lax Indian attitude has enabled a mostly peaceful, because stealthy, takeover of Indian territory by the Chinese until the territorial creep led to the 2020 Galwan encounter, when the two forces began eye-balling each other over territory between Beijing's 1959 claim line and the LAC in eastern Ladakh.
With India having lost so much territory already, the Modi government would ideally like China to agree on the LAC as a border. Except, this requires a restoration of the status quo ante that Jaishankar has been iterating for a while now. But the Chinese, realizing that New Delhi can be pushed around easier than they had earlier assumed, have made it amply clear they are unwilling to ease their stranglehold on the Y-Junction and permit Indian access to the Depsang Plains short of India signing off on an extended DMZ that will prevent the Indian army from militarily exploiting proximity to the Xinjiang Highway or endangering the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor branching off at the Karakorum Pass.
Jaishankar may well argue that the territory lost to the Chinese in earlier years was owing to a force majeure situation — China's marshalling an irresistible force. But if the argument is that this piece of Indian land has been under Chinese occupation since the mid-1950s when they built the Xinjiang Highway through it and an inattentive New Delhi let the PLA gobble up that part of Aksai Chin, and that realistically, India is not now nor will ever be in a position to get it back, then the issue becomes what is India getting for, in effect, accepting Chinese sovereignty over it?
There's no sign of Jaishankar countering the Chinese proposal for a DMZ and India's reconciling to Chinese sovereignty over the 1,000 sq kms of captured territory in northeastern Ladakh by demanding that Beijing recognize the McMahon Line in the east, as part of a grand bargain — a solution, incidentally, first offered by Zhouenlai to Jawaharlal Nehru in the Fifties and again by Dengxiaoping to Rajiv Gandhi in the 1980s.
Such a final solution for a vexed border dispute would make sense, and not be difficult for Modi to sell to the Indian people. But there's no such grand bargain on the anvil, which makes this particular deal in Ladakh more onerous.
The most alarming possibility is this: After firming up its Ladakh end, China will begin moving on Arunachal with a view to detaching the Tawang District where the main Tibetan Lamasaries are located, and which the Chinese call "southern Tibet'' in the hope that here too New Delhi can be strong-armed into striking a territorial deal on Chinese terms. In that case, there will be war, the outcome of which though uncertain potentially favours the PLA, which is advantaged in every way. It may not be a military disaster for India on the scale of 1962, but could dent the army's reputation in lots of ways.
It is precisely such a denouement that MEA may be worried about and why it is trying to distance itself from it. For instance, Jaishankar's Ministry has already begun putting out commentaries via retired diplomats commentating in the media that it was the army commanders at their parleys in Chushul who hammered out the deal for the disengagement in Ladakh, without once hinting that the said army commanders negotiated strictly per MEA script and instructions. (See https://asiatimes.com/2022/09/disentangling-india-china-himalayan-standoff/ )
Still, it boggles the mind that the Indian government is party to realizing peace on the LAC on a piecemeal basis, which serves China's purpose. By not linking negotiations regarding the western theatre (Ladakh) to developments in the eastern sector (Arunachal Pradesh), Beijing can stretch out the negotiations concerning the LAC indefinitely — the tactics it has successfully used so far. This is not in India's interest.
PM Modi has to see the wisdom in insisting that the deal is for all of the disputed border, or there are no negotiations at all, and let the local conditions then dictate whether there will be hostilities or not. But in that case, and looking holistically at the bilateral relations, New Delhi will have to begin ramping up punitive actions, trade sanctions, etc to slowly but conspicuously begin closing off the open access to the vast Indian market the Chinese Companies have so far availed of.
The PM has to communicate to Xi that either China agrees to have all round good relations without the distraction of a militarily live border, or India prepares for all-round hostility, and that there's no middle ground.
Bharat Karnad is an emeritus professor in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, Delhi and a national security expert.