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China: claims, intrusions in Ladakh, Sikkim, Bhutan and the NER

Part 1: The 2005 meeting between Wen Jiabao and Manmohan Singh was a turning point
As China herself has now largely recovered from the pandemic, her foreign policy is now aggressive aimed at enforcing her claims and punishing those she believes oppose her

Lt Gen J.R. Mukherjee, PVSM, AVSM, VSM (Retd)   |     |   Published 31.07.20, 11:25 AM

Chinese policymakers seek to restore China’s “Middle Kingdom” status and accomplish five specific objectives: economic growth and development, reassurance, countering constraints, resource diversification and reducing Taiwan’s international space. China’s ambitions are to be “the superpower”. China feels the US, West and their allies, including India and Japan, are trying to constrain these ambitions which she finds unacceptable. Amalgamation of Taiwan and securing her seaboard, ensuring security of buffer regions of Tibet, Xinjiang and Mongolia and her sea routes, in addition to strategic energy sources and minerals are “core interests”. She also has to ensure internal security of her people.

The coronavirus pandemic that originated in Wuhan and spread to the entire world with disastrous effect has drawn widespread international condemnation. As China herself has now largely recovered from the pandemic, her foreign policy is now aggressive aimed at enforcing her claims and punishing those she believes oppose her.

India’s northern/eastern border with China/Tibet is about 4000km long, and large parts of the border areas are claimed/in occupation illegally by China. Prior to the 1962 war China illegally seized and occupied Aksai Chin, an area of about 38,000sqkm. Pakistan also illegally ceded about 5,180 sq km to the Chinese through an agreement on March 2, 1963. She also claims large areas in eastern Ladakh.

The dispute in Ladakh dates back to Chinese forcible occupation of Tibet and Xingjiang from 1949 onwards and to a letter from Chou en Lai to Pandit Nehru in 1959 wherein the Chinese claimed Aksai Chin and which they had already occupied. In 1962, they advanced up to other areas and claimed, including a major part of the Pangong Tso, part of Galwan Valley, areas near the Depsang Plains, Chumar, Hot Springs. Demchok, Daulat Beg Oldie and a few other areas. The limit of these claimed areas were then called the Line of Actual Control (LAC), about 1597km long in Ladakh. The Chinese are now saying that the whole of Ladakh is also theirs. All these claims are preposterous as none of them is supported by facts.

In addition to Ladakh, China has disputed the location of the trijunction near Lipulekh Pass in conjuction with Nepal, the trijunction with Bhutan, Tibet and Sikkim; the trijunction between Bhutan, Arunachal and Tibet; and the trijunction between Arunachal, Tibet and Myanmar. She also claims the Barahoti area in the UP/Tibet Border sector, the Finger Area of North Sikkim, parts of West/Central/East Bhutan, including Doklam Plateau and almost the entire Arunachal Pradesh. The Chinese do not recognise the Macmohan line.

The Tibetan government in exile counter the Chinese claims stating they were a totally independent state since 1913. There was never any structured Chinese rule or formal suzerainty over Tibet. In 1914, the Tibetan government signed the Simla Accord with the British rulers of India, demarcating the border and called it the Macmohan Line, which is what is claimed by India being the inheriting state from the British.

The Chinese also differ from Indian interpretation of the alignment of the Macmohan Line as it has only been delineated on a large-scale map. Further, while India interprets the LAC to be based on areas physically held by the opposing forces of India and China, the Chinese interpretation appears to be related to their interpretation of the alignment of the Macmohan Line from a letter of Chou En Lai to Pandit Nehru wherein he refers to forward location of troops of both sides as in 1959. The LAC is again referred to in the Colombo Proposals of December 1962. This now needs to be specified by them in concrete geographical terms and an understanding between both governments reached, as this is the initial issue of dispute. If the above presumptions are correct, the following areas of further dispute emerge in the Eastern Sector:

  • Location of the Tibet-Sikkim-Bhutan border tri-junction – the Chinese claim it to be further south than that claimed by India. The recent standoff at the Doklam Plateau and Chinese occupation of Sarithang in West Bhutan is a fallout of these Chinese claims.
  • Location of the Tibet-Arunachal-Bhutan tri-junction – the Chinese claim it to be much farther South, hence Chinese claims to the Thagla Ridge, Khinzemane, Tawang, Bomdila and other locations and Sakteng area in Eastern Bhutan.
  • The Chinese also have claims in Central Bhutan – defence of Bhutan is an Indian Treaty obligation.
  • In the Subansiri sector, they claim Longju.
  • In the Dibang Sector there are claims to Fish Tails area currently under Indian occupation.
  • In the Lohit Sector the claim is to the Tibet-Arunachal-Myanmar tri-junction – being much farther south, hence their claims to Walong.
  • In addition to the above, I have no doubt that if and when a physical demarcation of the LAC is done between the two countries, more disputes are bound to arise.
  • There are also claims to Barahoti in Uttaranchal and on HP/Tibet border.

China has also made specific claims based on past direct Tibetan control, over these areas:

  • The Tawang Tracts (Tawang and West Kameng districts of Arunachal Pradesh) where the sixth Dalai Lama was born in the 17th century and is claimed to be the fiefdom of the Dzongpens of the Tsona district in Tibet. This area is South of the Macmohan Line and the Tibetan Government in Exile and the Dalai Lama have publicly declared that Tawang is part of India.
  • In the Subansiri Valley, Asafila, and the Portrang Ridge along the Subansiri River/Tsari Chu, also known as the “Crystal Mountain”, a place of pilgrimage since time immemorial, is claimed by China. Longju and the Bisa Cane Bridge have also been illegally occupied by the Chinese in the 1980s.
  • In the Dibang sector on account of early Indian cartographic errors, the Chinese claim a large area astride Kaila Pass in the Fish Tails area.
  • In the Lohit sector, the specific Chinese claim is to the Dichu pass itself on the watershed.

Notwithstanding all the above, China was in 1959, and even till as late as the 1980s, prepared to do a swap of their Western Claimed Area of Aksai Chin with the claimed area of Arunachal to resolve the dispute – this was not agreed to by the Indian government. Thereafter, a series of meetings between officials of both countries were held with no worthwhile results. However, consequent to meetings between the heads of state of both countries, several treaties related to ensuring peace and tranquillity have been signed, starting with the Border Peace and Tranquillity Agreement in 1993 and the last one in 2005. Relations actually improved in 2003-04 when it was felt a resolution of the dispute was in sight. In 2005, the meeting between Wen Jiabao and Manmohan Singh was seen as a turning point in relations wherein it was agreed to resolve the border dispute without displacing settled populations.

Tomorrow: Part 2: The deterioration in India-China relations leading to Galwan Valley stand-off



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