A policy blunder of the greatest magnitude, a humiliating defeat, and six decades of hiding the truth about what really caused the war between China and India in 1962, has so completely embedded a visceral distrust of China in the Indian mind that whenever there is a turn for the better in our relationship, our media, and the majority of our China-watchers, look for the hidden catch in it first before allowing themselves to believe that our relations might actually start improving.
The reaction of some of our best-known commentators to Beijing’s announcement that China and India would begin a synchronised disengagement on the north and south shores of Pangong lake in Ladakh with the intention of eventually returning to our April 2020 positions, is a case in point. While General H.S. Panag welcomed the development in a recent video interview, his scepticism about China’s intentions was writ large in his words and his body language.
Colonel Ajai Shukla was more forthright in voicing his distrust of the Chinese: “a 10-km stretch between Finger 3 and Finger 8. Indian Army has patrolled this area since the 1962 Sino-Indian war but now cannot enter the zone. …. China has been granted right to patrol to finger 4. that means LAC effectively shifted from finger 8 to finger 4,” he tweeted (emphasis added.) Others, including some in the political opposition, echoed his scepticism.
Criticising Shukla for creating a ‘false perception’, another Twitter user, ‘Sunny Shikhar’, claimed that “China (whose version of the LAC runs through Finger 4, the fourth of eight ridges coming down to the north shore of Pangong lake) has had a road till F4 since 1999 and a naval Radar base on F6 since 2006. “We patrolled till F8,” he points out, “on the road made by China because they let us, not because we controlled it. Now (under the terms of the disengagement)” China cannot even patrol on its own road between F8-F4”.
I have no idea who ‘Sunny Shikhar’ is, but if the facts he cites are correct, it means that China has forfeited as much of its claimed right to patrol as India has.
If that is indeed so, then Shikhar’s clarification substantiates Rajnath Singh’s statement in parliament, that both sides have agreed that neither will patrol the intervening area after the mutual withdrawals, till ‘an agreement is reached through future talks’.
A breakthrough has been achieved
To say that this has been a crucial breakthrough in the longstanding border dispute would be an understatement. For the agreement is not only an explicit acknowledgement that a ‘Grey Area’ or ‘No Man’s Land’ has existed between the two countries’ conflicting definitions of the LAC, but also marks a formal elevation of this area to the status of a ‘buffer zone’.
The difference between the two concepts is that whereas both Chinese and Indian patrols were entering “No Man’s Land” frequently, and waving placards stating that ‘This is Chinese/Indian Territory, please withdraw’ at each other when they met, now neither side will enter it till the misunderstandings and apprehensions that have arisen between the two countries are cleared through talks.
To a generation that has grown up in the era of the nation-state, this will look like an unsatisfactory resolution of the issue, for don’t all countries need hard, clearly defined, constantly patrolled borders? What our generation can only learn from the study of history is that hard boundaries replaced porous border regions, or belts, only in the era of the nation-state which first took shape after the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, and attained its full, malignant form with the widespread introduction of passports as recently as in the 1880s.
For reasons best known to itself, China has been studiously avoiding giving India its maps of the Ladakh-Aksai Chin area ever since the 1993 Agreement was signed. But it has been equally reticent about this in 15 out of the 24 border agreements it has signed. This has created unease in other countries as well, and has vindicated the belief among China watchers here and in the West, that Beijing is following a salami-slicing strategy to acquire more and more territory in Ladakh.
But we need to be as wary of preconceptions and prejudices imported from the West as we are of the inexplicable reticence of the Chinese. For the unalterable fact is that if the disengagement that has now begun at Pangong is completed without any hitches, a similar process is likely to take place all along the LAC, at least in the Western Sector. If that takes place, a de facto border belt, as distinct from a de jure border line, will come into being between the two countries in the Himalayas, in an area that China considers vital to its security, but for reasons totally unconnected with India. That has the potential to finally bring to our countries the lasting peace that both have been seeking ever since they signed the Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility in 1993.
Such historic breakthroughs are usually made at the highest political levels. What makes the present disengagement very different, perhaps unique, is that it has emerged almost entirely out of an intense, and continuous discussion between the two military commands, with no overt intervention by the political leadership.
Since June last year, there have been nine well-publicised conferences between the corps commander of the 14th corps stationed in Leh, and his Chinese counterpart from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Western Theatre Command. But, behind these, there have been between 25 to 30 meetings, many of them online or telephonic, at every level from battalion to brigade to division commander, to answer questions, allay suspicions, and clear misunderstandings that could have led to flare-ups of the kind that so nearly happened on the South Bank of the Pangong Tso when our forces’ foiled the PLA’s attempt to establish its presence opposite Finger 4 in late August by pre-emptively occupying several commanding heights over the area.
That confrontation was the closest China and India came to war, but it showed to the Chinese that India was building up its forces around the lake in earnest, and that any more covert attempts to establish advantageous positions to use as bargaining chips in future negotiations would be met with military force. It, therefore, acquired for the Indian Army a respect that had previously been lacking in the PLA.
Two other factors reinforced this: the first was the Indian Army’s resolute reinforcement of its troop strength, including artillery and armour, throughout the killing winter months. The Chinese were, of course doing the same, albeit outside the Indian definition of the LAC, so they fully understood India’s determination not to give any more ground.
The second was the army’s preparation of launchpads at places where it had the advantage of terrain, from where it could capture ground inside China’s definition of the LAC if the PLA crossed a Lakshmana Rekha into our territory. These preparations sent a clear signal that, should the PLA be tempted to try any more salami slicing of territory in Ladakh, it would become an extremely expensive operation.
But as the tragic Galwan incident (triggered by a Chinese soldier from a newly inducted unit manhandling Colonel Babu) showed, muscle-flexing can be a dangerous strategy if it is not backed up by confidence-building measures that reassure both sides that the promises being made will indeed be kept.
The crucial ingredient
This is the crucial ingredient in the negotiations that has brought China and India from the brink of war to the brink of peace. For, as of February 2020, the army commander of Northern Command has been Lieutenant General Y.K. Joshi, who has served four tenures at various levels in Ladakh, from brigade commander to army commander in Leh, to the chief of staff of the Northern Command, based in Jammu, and finally Army Commander in February 2020.
What may have been far more important from the point of view of confidence-building is that from 2005 till 2008, General Joshi served as India’s defence attaché in Beijing, and developed a good working knowledge of Mandarin when he was there.
Since the formal talks held so far have been at the corps commanders’ level, General Joshi had to work with the Leh Corps Commander Lt General Harinder Singh, who did a creditable job in the first six rounds of talks despite not having served previously in the Himalayan Theatre, his specialty having been in counter-intelligence.
But on October 15, when General Singh was replaced by General P.G.K. Menon, who had served as a brigadier in the Leh-based XIV corps some years earlier, India finally had a negotiating team that had the necessary knowledge of the terrain and a far better understanding of its Chinese counterparts and was, in turn, understood better by them.
On the Chinese side, although one can at most hazard a guess, it would seem that President Xi Jinping also made a crucial change at the top of the Western Theatre Command that has helped to bring about the present agreement. On December 18, he replaced General Zhao Zongqi with General Zhang Xudong. Relatively little is known here about General Zhang, but General Zhao had headed the Western Theatre Command during the 2017 Doklam standoff. He could hardly not have been miffed at the way that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had claimed a victory of sorts – what the hyper-nationalist section of our media hailed as ‘a draw’ when the PLA withdrew its bulldozers from the ridge where the confrontation took place. President Xi may therefore have been advised that after that searing experience, General Zhao would be the least suited person to take the risk that a negotiated withdrawal entailed.
The full story of how the disengagement was achieved will only be available decades later, when official documents get de-classified, if at all they ever are, but what cannot be denied is the magnitude of the achievement. By agreeing to create a buffer zone around Pangong, the two commands have opened the way to the settlement of the seven decade-long border based upon a new, ‘post-national’, concept of an international border. They have therefore taken the first essential step towards a lasting peace between China and India.
But the peace is tenuous, and will not last if Modi and his policymakers do not give it an explicit and public endorsement. For, the Chinese have developed an almost neurotic, and well-founded, distrust of Modi’s sudden, radical and secretive changes of policy towards China and the US, since his government came to power.
This is because in all of the 25-30 less formal interactions that have taken place in the lead up to the agreement, the single, almost neurotic, refrain from the Chinese side has been “will your government live up to the commitments we have chalked out”. The anxiety arises from their lack of understanding of the adversarial way in which democracies function. They are therefore extremely sensitive to the statements of sundry government and opposition political leaders, and to the overt hostility to China they see displayed almost daily by TV anchors and the defence analysts they hear and read in the Indian media.
The nervousness of the Chinese has increased as the two sides have inched closer to an understanding. The Indian interlocutors have therefore had to spend as much as half of the time at each meeting convincing their Chinese counterparts to disregard this ‘democratic noise’ and concentrate on what the government is doing and not saying.
Generals Joshi and Menon have succeeded in conveying the needed reassurance, but if the current agreement is even to last, let alone become the foundation of a final resolution of the border issue, it absolutely needs political endorsement from Prime Minister Modi himself.
This is because it was Modi who, without any prior discussion with his foreign office, and possibly even his national security adviser Ajit Doval, made an unannounced, volte face from the long term strategic cooperation with China that had been the policy of all previous governments since 1993, and joined the US-led bid to ‘contain’ China in the Indian Ccean, but also the South China sea.
He did this only 11 days after hosting President Xi in a state visit to India that could have restored China-India relations to where they might have been, had the 1962 war not taken place.
Today, Modi has an opportunity not only to do this, but do it without loss of face. All he has to do is restore all the economic and digital ties with China that he broke so abruptly in May after the Chinese occupation of the grey zone at Pangong lake. The rest will follow.