The gloves appear to have come off in the India-China standoff in eastern Ladakh. In response to a query by an Indian daily, on September 25, the Chinese foreign ministry issued a statement that the “China-India border LAC (Line of Actual Control) is very clear, that is the LAC on November 7, 1959. China announced it in the 1950s, and the international community, including India, are also clear about it”.
Four days later, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said, “China does not recognise the so-called Union Territory of Ladakh illegally established by India and opposes infrastructure construction in disputed border areas for military control purposes.”
Both these statements are a clear indication of the hardening Chinese stance and are like a red flag to the Indian government. The numerous rounds of talks at the military, diplomatic, and political levels appear to have had minimal impact on finding some common ground in resolving the Ladakh crisis.
The Chinese reference to the 1959 LAC is highly regressive. The 1959 LAC was first mentioned by the Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in his November 7, 1959 letter to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Zhou proposed that “the armed forces of China and India each withdraw 20 kilometres at once from the so-called McMahon Line in the east, and from the line up to which each side exercised actual control in the west.”
In his reply on November 16, Nehru wrote, “We do not yet know with any precision where the frontier line lies according to the claims of the Chinese Government… An agreement about the observance of the status quo would, therefore, be meaningless as the facts concerning the status quo are themselves disputed.”
Another specific reference to the 1959 LAC came in the Chinese declaration of a unilateral ceasefire on November 21, 1962, signaling the end of the 1962 India-China war. Peking Radio announced that “Beginning from December 1, 1962 the Chinese frontier guards will withdraw to positions 20 kms behind the line of actual control which existed between China and India on November 7, 1959.”
Despite the Indian Army having suffered a major defeat, Nehru refused to accept the Chinese version of the 1959 LAC. He wrote to Zhou on December 1, stating that this was an “attempt to retain under cover of preliminary ceasefire arrangements, physical possession over the area which China claims and to secure which the massive attack since October 20, 1962, was mounted by your forces. This we cannot agree to.”
The rapprochement following Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to Beijing in 1988 led to a series of border agreements that were preceded by discussions on the alignment of the LAC. As described in Shivshankar Menon’s book Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy, before the 1993 Agreement, the Chinese insisted that they would only respect the 1959 LAC, but after hard negotiations, it was decided to create a group of experts to “advise on the resolution of differences between the two sides on the alignment of the line of actual control."
Unfortunately, the exercise to resolve the differences in the LAC could never be completed. This has led to some assumptions that the LAC is an ever-changing line being routinely ‘salami-sliced’ by the Chinese in their favour. These assumptions are not correct.
In the last 60 years after the 1962 War, and particularly after the Wangdung incident of 1986, both countries have consolidated areas under their control. There exist some disputed pockets, mostly small, where both sides have a different perception of where the LAC lies. However, even in these disputed areas, there is clarity on the ground about each other’s perception due to the patrolling patterns. An easily understood example is the North Bank of Pangong Tso, where the Indian Army was patrolling up to Finger 8 and the Chinese Army to Finger 4. These two points defined their respective LAC claims.
This mutual understanding of the LAC, reinforced by various agreements and protocols, ensured decades of calm along the border. By harking back to an undefined line that apparently existed 61 years earlier, the Chinese leadership has put the very concept of the exiting LAC in dispute. This would obviously be unacceptable to India.
The second red flag for India is the Chinese statement that they do not recognise the illegally constituted Union Territory of Ladakh. The BJP leadership considers the decision to dilute Article 370 and bifurcate the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir into two union territories as one of their singular achievements. By questioning this, China is intruding into a most sensitive political space where no concession is possible by the Indian government.
It is sometimes argued that China’s adoption of a maximalist position is only part of a coercive process to gain the greatest advantage in the negotiations. However, as Thomas C. Schelling, winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, reminds us, “Coercion…requires that our interests and our opponent’s not be absolutely opposed…Coercion requires finding a bargain.” By raising demands that are entirely unacceptable to India, China has made a resolution of the current crisis extremely difficult.
Notwithstanding the continuing dialogue and the periodic statements that follow, it is becoming increasingly apparent that both sides have hardened their political positions. Perhaps the only saving grace in this situation is that neither country wants a full-scale war. However, if our only hope now is on the thousands of cold, tense, and heavily armed soldiers facing off along the LAC to keep the peace, we could yet stumble into a conflict.
The author is former Northern Commander, Indian Army, under whose leadership India carried out surgical strikes against Pakistan in 2016. Views expressed are personal.