India-China Border Standoff: What Do the Chinese Really Want?

What the Chinese really do seem to want is the line they may or may not have reached following their 1962 attack. 

Updated
Opinion
5 min read
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It is a measure of the ongoing deadlock that the 7th meeting between the Indian and Chinese corps commanders in the Moldo-Chushul border near Pangong Tso has simply vanished from the news cycle. For the record, the meeting was held on 13 October, it began at noon and went on till late in the evening. A joint press release at the last round of talks did result in one significant joint commitment of the two sides to “stop sending more troops to the frontline.”

This time around, the release merely spoke of “a sincere, in-depth and constructive exchange of views” on the subject of disengagement along the LAC in Ladakh. The rest of the release was restatement of past formulations about maintaining dialogue and communications and the apex level understandings reached by their respective leaders.

Is Border Construction The Root Cause Of Problems?

A more significant signal of the way things are going came from Beijing. Here, in response to a question about India inaugurating new bridges to enhance connectivity along the LAC, the Chinese spokesman Zhao Lijian went ballistic.

Zhao, who is also famous as a ‘Wolf Warrior’ declared that “China doesn’t recognise the so-called ‘Ladakh Union Territory’ illegally set up by India”. He went on to criticise India’s infrastructure construction and military deployment in the border areas. “This,” he declared, “ is the root cause of tensions.”

If border construction is the root cause of problems, then the two sides are unlikely to find a meeting point. China has, over the years and much before India, developed an excellent infrastructure in Tibet. The speed with which it is able to do so was visible earlier this year when it deployed a huge force to build a road up to the LAC along the Galwan river valley. To then expect India not to do the same is a fool’s errand. But somehow the PLA has been fixated on this for some time now.

India-China Face-Off: Has There Been A ‘Freeze’?

This was the last meeting in which the Indian commander of the XIV Corps Lt Gen Harinder Singh participated, as he has been transferred as the Commandant of the College of Combat in Mhow.

His successor Lt Gen P G K Menon was also part of the delegation, along with Navin Srivastava, the Joint Secretary (East Asia), the key officer dealing with China in the Ministry of External Affairs. The Chinese delegation was led by Maj Gen Liu Lin, the commander of the South Xinjiang Military District and for the first time, a representative of the Chinese foreign ministry, presumably the desk officer dealing with India, was also present. According to reports, there were also two representatives from the respective overall headquarters of the Army as well.

Little Or No Change In The Chinese Position

All indications are that there is little or no change in the Chinese position. Though they had agreed to disengage and de-escalate the situation as far back as in June, there has been no movement in the Pangong Tso area. However, there has been a pull back by both sides in the Galwan River Valley, and some Chinese withdrawal in the Gogra areas. The situation in the Depsang area is not known.

However in Pangong, the Chinese now insist that the Indian side withdraw from the heights they had occupied in late August. 

Though these are on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the forward Indian posture in a line from the Helmet feature to Gurung Hill, Magar Hill, Mukapari, Rezang La and Reqin La is worrying the Chinese who have heavy deployments in the Spanggur Tso area. Only after that will they discuss the other issues, including the withdrawal from the Finger 4 area in the north bank of the Pangong Tso.

India is not likely to budge at this tactic which wants the last development to be discussed first.

As of now there is every indication that the two sides plan to dig in for the winter. This is not going to be easy for either side. But reports say that both are bracing themselves for that eventuality.

Problem Is Figuring Out What the Chinese Want

In the absence of any movement in the official dialogue between the two countries, we can only speculate. Take for example, were we to assume that the two sides could indeed work out a status quo ante ex-April 2020 in eastern Ladakh, what then ?

Given the bad experience we have had, India can now hardly afford to go back to a status quo ante of the whole relationship.

The post-1993 peace and tranquility along the LAC was based on mutual trust. This has been fraying in the past several years as the Chinese have appeared at various times in places like Depsang, Pangong Tso and Chumar, pushing against the LAC as it exists. If there is no trust, then, presumably both sides will maintain forward deployments. The other option is to work out a set of local and specific pullbacks by both sides.

The problem is in figuring out what the Chinese want.

They have made a claim that they are for upholding the LAC as it existed on 7 November 1959, which means before the 1962 border war.

The reality is that this is a fictitious line. In his 7 November 1959 letter to Nehru, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai had merely asserted that while the LAC was approximate to the McMahon Line in the east, in the west it was “the line to up to which each side exercises actual control”.

Here’s What the Chinese Really Do Seem To Want

It was only in a letter the following month where he clarified that “in the western sector, the Chinese map published in 1956, correctly shows the traditional boundary between the two countries.”

No map or any other reference was provided by Zhou. But if you go and look at the Chinese maps of the period, they very clearly show the boundary in Pangong Tso as depicted by India. Further, they also show the Galwan and Chip Chap river valleys within India.

So, the Chinese position is not very illuminating. There is also another line for which the Chinese provided the latitude and longitude during the talks between the officials of both sides in 1960. This line, too, does not conform to what the Chinese are seeking right now.

What the Chinese really do seem to want, leave aside the geopolitical issues, is the line they may or may not have reached following their 1962 attack.

But since there were no Indian forces left in many of those areas, the Chinese expect the Indian side to take them at their word and offer them a border which was won by war. As it is, by Indian calculation, they have occupied 3,000 sq kms of Ladakh between September 1962 (on the eve of the war) and today.

(The writer is Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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