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War and Peace ft. Indo-China, Part 1

Written by Shayan Ahmad Khan and Nilay Aundhe

The Chinese Government has tried to delude us by professions of peaceful intentions.”

-Sardar Vallabhai Patel, 1950

In international relations and geopolitics, there are no friends or enemies, only permanent interests. With 2020 marking the 70th anniversary of the establishment in diplomatic ties between India and China, it is ironic that the two countries are far from a celebration and are currently holding disengagement talks. However, it is common knowledge that relations between contemporary China and India have been characterized by border disputes, resulting in several military conflicts. To understand the current nature of the situation, we must start from the very beginning — the 1950s.

The Annexation of Tibet and the Panchsheel Agreement

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) under the Communist Party, had established diplomatic relations with the Indian Government in 1950. Despite this, they saw Indian concern over Tibet as an interference in their internal affairs. Eventually, they decided to re-assert control over Tibet by force, which finally ended in Tibet conceding suzerainty to China. This would later form the basis on which China would attempt to claim Arunachal Pradesh as Southern Tibet.

It was then in 1954 that India and China would sign the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, known as the Panchsheel agreement.

The five principles as listed in the Panchsheel Agreement. Image taken from Times of India.

On signing this treaty, India and China had an agreement of peace and non-interference. Effectively, this meant that India formally recognized China’s control over Tibet.

It was from here that the deterioration in diplomatic ties began. The Chinese began construction of a highway through the Tibet side of the borders and went on to construct it through parts of Aksai Chin, an area that was not demarcated. The road, while being much easier to access through the Chinese side, was practically inaccessible through the Indian side because of difficult terrain. Hence, India came to know of the road only through China’s announcement in 1957, a month before the road was to be opened, and thus tensions between the countries rose.

In a letter dated 5th February 1960, Nehru wrote to Zhou, “In the latest note from the Government of the People’s Republic of China, emphasis has been laid on our entire boundary never having been delimited. That is a statement which appears to us to be wholly incorrect, and we cannot accept it. On that basis there can be no negotiations.”

Map showing Chinese occupation of Aksai Chin in the 1950s. Image from India Today.

By then, China had even stopped pretending all friendship with India. Despite that, in the 1950s, the then Indian Prime Minister Nehru declined an informal US offer to have a permanent seat in the UNSC, and said that China be given it instead. It is said he believed that since India was ‘non-aligned’, they would not require it. Many believe that our political strategies and leadership before the war were borderline naive and idealistic in nature.

However, in 1961, the Indian Government was under pressure by the Press and local parties, forcing them to take action against the Chinese. This was when the Forward Policy was introduced.

The Forward Policy

A forward policy of a country is a set of foreign policies applicable to territorial disputes where the emphasis is on securing control over targeted territories. Around mid-June of 1962, at all the disputed areas, 12–15 Indian soldiers were sent without any logistical supply or reinforcement. This instigated China, and they attacked India on the grounds of Chinese sovereignty and integrity. The Forward Policy implemented by the then Government of India was termed as a strategic failure, and control of the Aksai Chin area became difficult for both the sides due to different ideas of international borders. There were many instances of patrolling parties of both sides clashing against each other, which a lot of times took a violent turn. All these issues slowly led to a war between India and China.

The Sino-Indian War

On October 20, 1962, China’s People Liberation Army (PLA) invaded Ladakh and the McMahon Line. China overran the North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA) and captured Tawang in only four days while making 3000 PoW (prisoner of war) camps. The Indian army was significantly outnumbered on the forward posts. In total, nearly 1386 soldiers were killed in action, and 1700 went missing. The war ended with China declaring a ceasefire and withdrawing its troops behind the ‘Line of Actual Control’, or the LAC.

Left : A crowd watches as Indian troops drive by in trucks during the border clash. Right : Major Shaitan Singh Bhati (Param Vir Chakra), who led 123 men of the 13th Kumaon regiment to fight over 1000 PLA soliders at heights of 17,000 feet. 114 of the men were martyred in the war. Image from The Print.

The war taught us a lot of things, most importantly the necessity of military preparedness. The Army did an excellent job for the security of the nation, but the Government lacked political strategy and war preparation. It was a massive humiliation to the country that the Chinese managed to enter our area and declared a ceasefire at the point till where their claim lied. According to China’s official military history, the war achieved China’s policy objectives of securing borders in its western sector.

The war also helped us see the Salami Slicing techniques used by China. Initially, the border between India and China used to be a set of disconnected points on the map, which could be interpreted in many ways. This, along with the vagueness of Chinese Definition after the 1962 war, left the border open for China to continue its creeping attempt to change the facts on military ground.

Salami Slicing is the process of making many small changes which finally amass into a big change. While crippling the economy and bringing about political divide, the military continues to break the status quo in the opposing nation. Image from Times of India.

The Government of India accepted the Chinese definition of the LAC by the agreements signed by the two sides in 1993 and 1996. These agreements laid down the precise locations of the LAC in all the sectors and limited the arms and armaments maintained by both the sides and gave guidelines for aircraft intrusions into other areas. According to these agreements, both sides cannot hold military exercises above 15,000 troops and need to limit the combat tanks, infantry combat vehicles, guns and any other weapon system mutually agreed upon. The two sides also need to exchange data on the military forces and arms to be reduced or limited. They need to decide on ceilings on military forces and arms to be kept by each side within mutually agreed geographical zones along the LAC in the India-China border areas.

The 1993 and 1996 agreements have been broken by the PLA many times in the past. In the last decades, three major incidents occurred in three different sectors (excluding the recent Gulwan Valley Incident), Depsang(2013), Chumar(2014) and Doklam(2017).

Image from Future Directions International

Depsang (2013)

It started in the Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) which is claimed by both sides. As a part of confidence-building measures (CBMs), both the Indian Army and the PLA had no permanent camps in the area. But, on April 15 2013, the PLA set up a few permanent camps in Rakhi Nula which were immediately spotted by the Indian Army, along with the subsequent setup of the Camps 300m away. Negotiations between the two sides lasted for three weeks, ending on May 3 with the PLA taking their bases back and India agreeing to demolish some structures on the Indian side. No military aggression occurred throughout the entire incident.

Chumar (2014)

Owing to Chinese construction of a highway that crossed to the Indian territory, this standoff lasted for roughly two weeks. The entire activity cooled down when the Chinese Government agreed to stop the highway construction. On the other hand, the Indian Army agreed to destroy a newly formed watch station which helped the Army keep a watch on the Chinese activity far over the border with high accuracy.

Doklam (2017)

Doklam is plateau land in Bhutan and extremely strategic to both countries. It protects the otherwise hopelessly vulnerable Siliguri Corridor (also called Chicken’s Neck), the only connection of Indian mainland to the northeast. For China, however, the interest is for Chumbi valley. Doklam gives a commanding view of this valley which is strategic for both of all three sides.
As the Government of Bhutan has cultivated special ties with India, the Indian Army extends, among military exercises, protection to Bhutan whenever required. So when the Chinese razed a few bunkers of Bhutanese Army and began road construction through Doklam as a part of their One Belt One Road (OBOR) project, the Bhutanese Army immediately asked India for backup. Two days after the infiltration by the Chinese Army, the forces managed to catch up and stop the PLA from infiltrating further. The entire standoff continued for 73 days and has been one of the most dangerous situations near the country’s borders in recent times. The entire incident was solved diplomatically when both sides mutually agreed upon de-escalation and India agreed to attend the BRICS summit in China.

A brief timeline of major border disputes between India and China. Made by Goutham Manoharan.

In recent times, the two countries have tried to nurture their bilateral relation through political meetings and even movies, like Kung Fu Yoga. However, at present, conditions have deteriorated due to the ongoing military standoff between the countries since May 2020. While diplomatic talks for de-escalation continue, there is uncertainty in the minds of many, awaiting the decisions that the countries will take. In our next article, we discuss the ongoing border dispute between India and China, the impact it will have, and take a glimpse into the possible future.

Sources and further reading:

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