Violent border clash between Indian and Chinese forces on 15 June 2020 in Galwan Valley in Ladakh of Kashmir region is the culmination of month long tension, accusations and counter accusations by both sides of building up of roads and other military infrastructures in violation of existing border protocol. India had been accusing China of occupying 38, 000 sq. km of its territory in Eastern Ladakh and Aksai Chin Plateau in the Western Himalayas since 1962. China, on the other hand, claims that India had been illegally occupying 35,000 sq. km of its territory in the Indian northeast, what India calls its state of Arunachal and China terms it as South Tibet. Since November, 1962, the military forces of both the countries are face to face along a 3,380 Km long ill-defined, largely unpopulated Himalayan plateau that is known as Line of Actual Control (LAC). In the absence of a border demarcation, it has always been a bone of contention as to where the LAC lies. According to India, the official maps published by the then Govt of China in 1893, 1909 and 1919 show that Galwan River Valley and its adjoining areas, including the strategic outpost of Daulat Beg Oldi, are a part of Ladakh Tehsil of Kashmir and not a part of Tibet proper. China, on the other hand, claims this area has been geographically, culturally and politically an integral part of Tibet that were ceded to the British Imperialist power in the 19th and 20th century when China was too weak to protest.
A similar situation exists in the Indian northeast where the two countries share borders along 1640 km. border that starts from Bhutan to the confluence of China-India-Myanmar border. This border line that generally follows the Himalayan crest is called McMahon Line, named in 1932 after the chief British negotiator of the Simla Accord, Sir Henry McMahon. McMahon proposed the line in the Simla Accord to separate Tibet from India in the eastern sector. Although the Tibetan representative signed the accord, the then Chinese Government never recognized this treaty. In the October 1962 border war, the Chinese launched massive attack all along the contested border. In the west they occupied the Aksai Chin and a part of eastern Ladakh. In the east, they advanced almost up to the very edge of the Brahmaputra valley, before unilaterally withdrawing to the post-war positions. However, the Chinese did not withdraw from their positions in the west. When ceasefire was declared on 21 Nov 1962, whatever positions the two armies were holding came to be known as Line of Actual Control (LAC). However, the distinguishing features between LAC and LOC, (line of control between Indian and Pakistani controlled Kashmir), are that unlike LOC, the LAC is not marked by barbed wire fencing, minefields, search lights and watch towers. Until recently, the two armies had maintained a healthy distance from each other and there had not been any incident for decades. The border protocol drawn by either sides were scrupulously observed, most importantly the belligerents would carry no firearms.
Beyond Arunachal and Ladakh, another point of dispute lies in Nathu La Pass in Sikkim-Tibet border where serious clashes occurred in 1967 in which there were hundreds of casualties on either side. Nathu La Pass is particularly important for Bangladesh because this pass is only 100 Km. away from Bangladesh's northern land ports. Any Chinese ingress into this area will threaten the narrow land link (known popularly as the Chicken's Neck) between Indian mainland and the whole of Northeast India and India will defend this piece of land at any cost. However, the positive side is that since 1967, there has been no major problem in Nathu La, in fact, the place has become a major route of trans-border trade and a tourist attraction. For Bangladesh and China, Nathu La provides the shortest land-sea access to land-locked Tibet.
Until the recent clashes, India and China were developing friendly ties notwithstanding the disputed borders. India-China trade annually would have touched a $100 billion had there been no Corona Pandemic. India-China friendship goes back to the birth of Communist China in 1949. India was one of the first countries of the world to recognize the new communist government and supported the move for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council be awarded to the new government in China. Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai and Indian Premier Jawaharlal Nehru developed a close personal relationship and they along with President Soekarno of Indonesia, President Nasser of Egypt and Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia were instrumental in launching of non-aligned movement in 1955 and the adoption of five principles of Panchsila that among others called for respect of each other's territorial integrity and sovereignty, mutual non-aggression, non-interference and peaceful coexistence. The border war in 1962, which many blame on Nehru's miscalculation of China's reaction to his so-called "Forward Deployment" of forces, came a rude shock to India and Mr. Nehru, in particular; he died a broken hearted man a year and a half later. Soon after the war, the Indian Army Chief Gen Thapar and the Defence V.K. Krishna Menon resigned and a new rearming and retraining of the Indian military starte.
Western powers, as well as the Soviet Union came in a big way to rearm, retrain and reorganize the Indian Army. Indian armed forces, long neglected after independence got a new boost in the form of new mountain divisions capable of high altitude fighting, mobile artillery, tanks, all weather supersonic fighters and a host of early warning and detection capabilities. Seeing the balance of power tilting inevitably towards India, President Ayub Khan signed a border treaty with China in 1963, where India alleged that Pakistan had ceded to China 5,300 sq.km. of its territory where Pakistan claimed that it gained 50 sq.km of additional territory. In any case, this treaty opened up a new era of China-Pakistan relations. The treaty that was opposed by India, gave the Chinese an opportunity to establish direct all-weather highway from to Kashi (Kashgar) to Lhasa, Tibet.
If we trace the immediate origin of the present conflict, we can see a number of global, strategic and tactical issues. Globally, China is a rising superpower and it is flexing its muscle along its border. It is engaged in unilateral expansion of its EEZ in the South China Sea that is ringing alarm bells in the littoral countries of Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia. As the Chinese are building their naval presence, the US, Japan, South Korea and other regional powers are increasing their presence too. In the Indian Ocean and in the Bay of Bengal too China is engaged in power play with India and the west. The Indo-Pacific strategy, propagated by the USA and India, is aimed at containing China and denying it supremacy in the sea. China, on the other hand, is pursuing its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that aims to create a global connectivity with Beijing. Pakistan is an important partner in BRI and China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that passes through Pakistan controlled Kashmir is a big stimulus for both the countries. India has been raising objection to CPEC on the ground that it passes through areas that are claimed by India as her territory. Thus we see that despite being major trading partners, China and India are pursuing foreign and defence policies that are bound to collide at some point of time.
The most recent clash originated from the fact that both China and India had been constructing roads and bridges in the Ladakh areas that the other side objects as violation of border protocol. The highway from Xinjiang to Lhasa that passes through the Galwan River valley. India too has ted a highway that connects Leh with Karakoram Range that will give road access to Indian forces operating in the Siachen Glaciers. Latest Chinese position in Galwan Valley heights will give them an advantage when they could disrupt the Indian highway anytime, as well as protect their own highway from Indian interference. Although, from high political level there has been call for restraint, both sides are bolstering their military positions. China and India had constructed air bases and military cantonments all along their borders. Most modern fighters, artillery guns and air defence missiles have been deployed throughout Indian-controlled Kashmir. Close to Bangladesh borders, air bases such as Baghdogra, Hashimara, Tezpur, Chabua, Dibrugarh that were lying virtually abandoned are now humming in activity. Most recently the first airbase, Panshihat, has been commissioned in Arunachal with Su-32MK aircraft. The Chinese have deployed modern fighters in Lhasa, Xigatse in Tibet, besides its military airbases in Hotan and Kashi in Xinxiang, close to the disputed Aksai Chin. Despite continued military build-up, I am sure a prolonged confrontation will be avoided.
An armed conflict between China and India must be avoided at all cost at a time when the whole world is fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. Both China and India are in deep economic recession as the rest of the world. Both the countries have much more important issues to tackle domestically as well as internationally. While a possible India-China war sounds like music to countries such as Pakistan, for countries such as ours, it will only cause further strain on our economic progress. Both India and China are our close economic partners; each invested heavily in our development projects. With India we had a number of disappointments in our relations, such as lack of support on Rohingya issues, continued border killings, failure to come to equitable solutions of water resources, NRC issues and continued finger pointing at us on so-called illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. Although PM Narendra Modi came up with the "Neighbourhood First" slogan, today the slogan sounds like empty rhetoric. On Rohingya issue, China too failed us; indeed Chinese veto in the UN Security Council gave blank cheque to Myanmar to carry out its planned genocide. Despite these disappointments, in the end, we need to continue to pursue a policy of peaceful settlement of all disputes and urge upon all parties to exercise restraint.
Air Cdre Ishfaq Ilahi Choudhury, ndc, psc (Retd), Treasurer, University of Asia Pacific, Dhaka
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