China’s rejection of Ladakh union territory could open a Pandora’s box

Thankfully, the Indian army’s preparations have buttressed Ladakh’s defences, after the nation’s political and security strategists proved woefully inadequate.

ByDavid Devadas
China’s rejection of Ladakh union territory could open a Pandora’s box

There are confusing signals from Beijing. On the one hand, it says it rejects the “illegal” formation of the union territory of Ladakh by India. On the other, it says it only wants India to agree to its control over a readjusted portion of Ladakh a little beyond what it has taken since April – what’s being called the “1959 line”.

If a relatively minor expansion was all the Chinese originally wanted, I don’t see why they would have built airfields and missile silos, rolled in large numbers of tanks and heavy artillery, and built fresh roads and fortifications over the course of this summer. They had a better chance of getting India to agree to their 1959 line before that mobilisation.

In fact, given the surprise they successfully sprang in April-May, and the Indian government’s refusal thereafter to even acknowledge that there had been any aggression, the People’s Liberation Army could have used the initial weeks of India’s near-paralysis to take over not just what it claimed in 1959 but perhaps even areas up to where they had advanced in 1962.

Instead, the PLA has dug in and installed fittings, including fibre optic cables, for long-term deployment on a war-scale. In fact, it has deployed forces at several places along the over 4,000-km frontier, including in Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh.

In that light, it is possible that the recent statements were a feint, and China could undertake a coordinated attack in tandem with Pakistan and an uprising within the Kashmir valley – the “triad of threats” of which I have warned in this column since May.

The shelling that was reported from the Line of Control opposite Keran and Machail in North Kashmir just as this column was going to print on Thursday might turn out to be a prong of a coordinated set of moves. Pakistani troops and armaments have been ominously massed opposite Keran and Gurez near the northern tip of the valley for a few weeks now. There has been heavy shelling opposite Poonch and Rajouri farther south, where India suffered casualties on 30 September.

Negative factors

On the other hand, it is possible that China had prepared for a major attack but has had a sober rethink. It has enough reasons – hostilities are heating up on the Taiwan front, the United States continues to be belligerent, Europe is backing away, foreign companies are being pushed by their home governments to leave China, and there are signs that domestic dissidence is on the rise. Plus, there is the small matter of bubonic plague. The 1959 line had been touted by the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece, the Global Times, even while the two foreign ministers were meeting in Moscow, but the idea was officially taken up immediately after a three-year-old child was diagnosed with the plague in Yunnan, far south of the earlier case in Inner Mongolia.

Going ahead with war might have been a preferred tactic to divert domestic attention from all that – if the PLA was sure of victory. But the Galwan drubbing, the success of the Indian military in taking several heights south of Pangong and openly involving Tibetan troops in the latter operation must have given Beijing pause. The openly advertised involvement of those hitherto secret formations subtly brought the future of Tibet into play.

The sudden talk of the 1959 claim might have been prompted by some or all of these factors — changing the goal post to one that India might accept to avoid a fight, and continued deployment. I am glad the government has rejected it, for hostilities might come back into play whenever China feels more confident. India must insist that the war installations across the Line of Actual Control are dismantled.

Chinese analysts have stated their preference for the foreign ministers’ five-point agreement in Moscow rather than the insistence of the Corps commander on the ground that the PLA return to its pre-April positions. The Moscow joint statement spoke of “disengagement” but not about restoring the status quo ante.

India should rectify this.

Ramifications of rejection

The rejection of the union territory in the same breath as a reiteration of the 1959 line by the official spokesperson of China’s foreign ministry is an indicator of what might lie ahead — either now or whenever China feels more comfortable after a pause.

The meaning of the rejection is unclear. Does China want to dictate administrative processes in Indian-controlled territory? Does it want to claim all parts of the Ladakh union territory that are currently under India’s control? Or does it only challenge the inclusion of portions under China’s control that have been included in the new maps?

While trying to figure out answers, India’s policymakers should remember that China employs ambiguity as strategy. To counter it, India must make counter-moves – smartly.

This column recommended in February that India should lay physical claim to the Gilgit region in tandem with other world powers, to turn it into a global crossroads. That area is key to the CPEC, which is the fulcrum of Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative to take over Eurasia through infrastructure and debt.

But, instead of engaging in real strategic planning and moves, those we trust with national security didn’t even take seriously the massive PLA mobilisation in Aksai Chin for war games, which began just around then. Any strategist worth the name would have been on guard when those troops and armaments swivelled to the LAC immediately after those war games.

Various maps

Since the government helpfully published two different maps when it enacted the constitutional changes last August to bifurcate the state of Jammu and Kashmir into union territories, it isn’t even clear which map the Chinese have rejected. One map put the Gilgit-Baltistan region within the Ladakh union territory, giving it three-quarters of the original princely state. The other split the two union territories from Siachen down. Both maps included Aksai Chin.

Maps are extremely important while dealing with China, which routinely pulls out forgotten maps, even from centuries ago, to claim territory in the here and now. Ladakh has historical links with Tibet, which China claims in its entirety.

The earlier map of Jammu and Kashmir in India was based on the J&K maharaja’s accession in 1947, and the state’s constitution. Passed in 1957, that constitution made J&K an “integral part of India” and mandated that the borders that the maharaja had ruled could not be altered. The accession was sound in international law.

One wishes the clear-headed and statesmanly Sardar Patel were still around. For this rejection, and the geo-strategic possibilities it potentially opens up, has underlined that a nation that wishes to remain strong and secure should not trust the geopolitically unlettered and strategically inept to handle sensitive issues, more so if their minds are riddled with manufactured narratives.

Most of those who pass for our leaders and strategic planners seem to think that, because they treat the LAC as an international border, others do too. But others don’t always treat India’s pending claims to the other side as cavalierly as our leaders do – as no more than political rhetoric, even if it is bombastically delivered in response to an opposition challenge in the parliament. In fact, inimical international players exploit flawed domestic moves to corner the country in the international arena. China, in particular, sees disputed borders as tickets to future gains.

It had refused to stamp visas on the Indian passports of citizens from the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir for an extended period in 2009-10. So, at some level, China did not accept the state as a part of India even a full decade before last year’s constitutional changes. That should have made India’s strategists extremely cautious.

Yet, a conversation with a retired top intelligence official on the day the constitutional changes were made showed me just how out of their depth even very senior officers (at least former ones) of India’s external intelligence agency could be. “But this is an internal matter,” he kept saying when I pointed out that it could stir up a hornet’s nest with China and other world powers.

Ignoring geopolitics

Just a few weeks before those constitutional changes, Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, had got Donald Trump to offer to arbitrate the issue. The US president repeated the offer seven weeks after the changes were made.

China and Pakistan had already brought the issue back to the UN Security Council, after about 45 years. Turkey, the European Union, the Democratic Party in the US, Malaysia, and, of course, Pakistan and China most stridently, took it up at various fora. Then, President Xi apparently told Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Mamallapuram that he wanted India, China, and Pakistan to get together and decide the fate of the state. Just two days earlier, he had backed Pakistan’s position on Kashmir.

An ostrich would be proud of how unperturbed India’s policymakers were by any or all of this. They did nothing to prepare for possible warlike moves, even when the PLA undertook massive war games in Aksai Chin this spring.

Despite those glaring gaps, one is thankful that back-breaking effort by officers and men over the past several weeks has positioned and fortified a vast number of troops, armaments, and provisions on the eastern front in Ladakh. The Army deserves great credit. From what I hear, arrangements to defend Ladakh are in extremely good shape and the josh is soaring.

The confusing statements from China might be an indication that Beijing knows.

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