Of its 23 ongoing territorial disputes from 1949, China proposed generous concessions in as many as 17
An eminent think-tanker close to the government propounded how it does really matter why the Chinese have adopted a certain course of action — the fact is that the Chinese have violated the Line of Actual Control, grabbed our territory and butchered our solders. That is the situation we have to deal with.
With great respect, such an approach is at best myopic and at worst delusional for till the time India does not drill as deep down as possible to get the best possible read on Chinese intentions India’s responses would continue to be tactical and not strategic. This unfortunately has been our Achilles heel as a nation.
Every Indian strategic thinker of any serious consequence, therefore, must address themselves to a fundamental question — why did the Chinese transgress across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and that too at a point in time when the world is grappling with Covid-19 — incidentally another Chinese gift to humankind.
Was it a desire to sweep the “China exports the Wuhan virus to the world” headline off the front pages of global newspapers and headlines of television channels around the world by creating multiple crises from the declaration of two additional administrative districts in the South China Sea, moving on the sovereignty of Hong Kong and creating flashpoints along the yet undelineated and undemarcated Sino-Indian border? Was it concern that the abrogation of Article 370 by India would change facts on the ground in Ladakh coupled with the beefing up of Indian border infrastructure especially the Darbuk-Shykok-Daulat Beg Oldie (DSDBO) road — a freshly constructed highway to Northern Ladakh?
Is Xi Jinping in trouble at home because of a faltering economy, a lurch towards dogmatic Maoism, coupled with a mishandling of the pandemic? Is it one of these reasons or all of them or something much more deeper and civilisational in character insofar as India is concerned?
Consider the following facts: To the exclusion of its territorial disputes with India and Bhutan, China has settled all its other land boundary disputes. China-watchers have been mystified and even a tad perplexed at the territorial concessions that China has repeatedly given to resolve its myriad conflicts.
Of its 23 ongoing territorial disputes from 1949, China proposed generous concessions in as many as 17, often agreeing to receive less than half the land it initially claimed. A classical example is the Sino-Tajik border dispute that was settled by an agreement between the two countries in January 2011.
The agreement that resolved a 130-year-old territorial dispute required Tajikistan to cede around 1,000 square kilometres of land in the Pamir Mountains to China. It mandates that China will receive only 3.5 per cent of the 28,000 square kilometres of land it had asked for by declaring them as historical Chinese lands.
Under its boundary settlements with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, China settled for just 22 and 32 per cent, respectively, of the land it had initially claimed.
This goes to demonstrate that the Chinese really do not care about territory.
In sharp divergence China has resolved none of its maritime border disputes, with the exception of the Gulf of Tonkin dispute with Vietnam, that was partially resolved after protracted negotiations spanning three rounds, i.e. in 1974, 1978-1979, and 1992-2000, spread well over 60 years.
This situation then begs the obvious question: Why have the Sino–Indian border talks not made progress despite 22 rounds of them between the Special Representatives of both sides? The last such meeting was held on December 21, 2019, in New Delhi between national security advisor Ajit Doval and state councillor/foreign minister Wang Yi.
It is instructive, therefore, to refer to one paragraph of the statement put out by the Indian ministry of external affairs after the conclusion of the talks.
Both sides agreed that it is important to maintain peace and tranquility in the border areas for the overall development of the bilateral relationship, pending final settlement of the boundary question.
In this context, they recognised the importance of existing confidence building measures (CBMs) to promote exchanges and communication between the border personnel and to ensure predictability in border management as well as strategic communication. They also agreed to work together for more CBMs in this regard.”
Interestingly, the Chinese foreign ministry had this to say on the 20th of December, 2020, before the meeting.
“Q: You announced the 22nd round of the China-India Special Representatives Talks on China-India Boundary Question. Can you elaborate the arrangements and specify what constitutes the boundary question to be discussed?
“A: The Meeting of the Special Representatives of China and India on the Boundary Question is the main channel for boundary negotiations and an important platform for strategic communication between the two countries.
Following established practice, the venue to host this annual event alternates between the two countries. Special representatives from the two sides will follow leaders’ consensus and have in-depth discussions over such issues as boundary delimitation, boundary and border administration and control, and practical cooperation to seek solutions to the boundary question. They will also exchange views over bilateral, regional and international issues of mutual interest. More information will be released to you in due course.”
No further information was released by the Chinese foreign ministry to confirm or contradict the Indian version or give its own read after the talks had culminated. It is thus obvious that the Chinese have been stringing us along waiting for either strategic asymmetry or a weak leadership in India to settle the border question on its own terms.
Interestingly, Wang Li, in addition to being foreign minister, is also a state councillor, a notch higher in the Chinese pecking order. He obviously would have been privy to the sweeping theatre-level incursions that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was planning.
If he was not it still would have not been surprising for a deep fracture between the PLA and the civilian leadership in China is a reality that many Sinologists have written about over the decades.
Like war is too serious a matter to entrust to military men, similarly the study of China is too profound a matter to be just left just to MEA/MOD or government-funded think tanks any further. An architecture of deep scholarship on China outside the confines of government is the need of the hour.