China has a long history of imperial arrogance, regarding itself as the centre of the earth and being labelled “The Middle Kingdom”. According to ancient Chinese diplomatic practice, ‘barbarians’, including rulers and diplomats representing European powers, had to “kowtow” before the Emperor, acknowledging him as the “son of heaven”. The Chinese practice of kowtow required others to kneel and bow so low as to have one’s head touching the ground!

As China’s power declined, this practice ended. But the country is rising now, using, or threatening to use, force in asserting its ever-expanding claims on its maritime frontiers. As tensions between Japan and China grew over the latter’s provocative naval manoeuvres in territorial waters surrounding the disputed Senkaku Islands, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently issued a stark warning. Abe asserted: “I have ordered the authorities to respond decisively to any attempt to enter territorial waters and land on the Islands”.

Localised problem?

China has evidently calculated that with a weak leadership and amid an economic downturn, India isn’t in a position to respond in the manner that Japan has.

Also, given its recent diplomatic style, India would not be averse to kowtowing when confronted by its power. After all, the External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid has labelled the latest Chinese intrusion as “acne”, with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh calling it a “localised problem”. Government spokespersons have refused to accept that while routine intrusions involve troops moving in and out of contested areas, in this case, the intruders had pitched tents and contested Indian sovereignty. Apologists for the Chinese assert that the real problem is because the Line of Actual Control (LAC) arising from the 1962 conflict has not been determined.

Border disputes

In the western sector in Ladakh, going by India’s definition of the LAC, the areas China is intruding in Depsang are clearly on the Indian side. In terms of the Macartney-Macdonald proposals, which China implicitly endorsed in 1899, the Ladakh-China border was determined as lying along the Karakoram Mountains up to the Indus River Watershed. Logically and legally, China has no option, but to accept this Indian definition of the LAC. New Delhi has been so pusillanimous that it deliberately chooses not to articulate how China has refused to agree to exchanging maps for determining the LAC and how it has gone back to the framework for a border settlement that Prime Minister Wen Jiabao agreed to in 2005.

The last time a similar intrusion across the LAC occurred was in Sumdorong Chu near the McMahon Line in Arunachal Pradesh in 1986. The then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi did not describe the Chinese action as “acne” or a “localised problem”. Indian forces were quietly mobilised and three mountain divisions were moved to the Sumdorong Chu area, occupying hilltops around the Chinese forces. China’s supreme leader Deng Xiao Ping warned that China would have to “teach India lesson” if it did not pull back. New Delhi refused to oblige. However, an agreement was reached in the Joint Working Group meeting in 1995 that there would be a simultaneous withdrawal of troops from two border posts each by China and India in the Sumdorong Chu valley.

Unanswered questions

The sudden decision made public in the late hours of May 5 that both sides will withdraw from the positions assumed after the Chinese pitched tents in the Depsang area raises more questions than they answer. The area in question has been historically on India’s side of the Ladakh-Tibet border. By agreeing to a mutual pull back from existing positions, has India not conceded that the area in question is disputed? Have we not put ourselves in a position of being unable to re-establish our presence in an area which is indisputably ours? If this is indeed the case, what is the status of the Indian presence in Daulat Beg Oldi itself? Could the Chinese now not undertake a similar intrusion around Daulat Beg Oldi and demand our removal of the strategic airlift capabilities there? Have we tacitly agreed to quietly pull back from strategic positions in Chumar and other areas?

Significantly, this is happening, when India’s Defence modernisation has been affected by the economic downturn. The Chinese have noted India’s Defence build up in Arunachal Pradesh and Ladakh over the past decade and evidently concluded that they need to act now on this , before it is too late.

This intrusion has come just after the Chinese have proposed freezing of troop levels on the border. Now that we have agreed to pull back from the Depsang area, are we setting the stage for downsizing the build up of our Lines of Communications and forward deployments across Ladakh, thus giving the Chinese military an advantage? These are issues that we need to carefully monitor in the days ahead. There can be no compromises on the country’s territorial integrity.

(The author is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan.)

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