Saturday, May 23, 2020


[Crises like the ongoing stand-off on the border must be handled with all our existing resources. But we would peril security of India as a state and civilisation, if we fail to learn lessons from the past. We need to bolster our national security capacity to handle uniquely formidable challenges imposed on us by  the sheer geopolitics of this region.]


        Sino-Indian border has once again seen escalation of tension. Chinese troops have transgressed into Indian side of the 'Line of Actual Control'. Displaying quintessential Chinese duality, its media has been using a belligerent language despite words of sanity by the top political leadership. Indian government has approached the issue calmly.  Indian Army Chief has visited his troops on the ground and sent additional reinforcements. Indians have made it clear that such transgression shall be rebuffed and status quo shall be maintained.    

   Over the last few decades, Indian state has handled such conflicts deftly but has avoided strategic preparation to deal with recurrent aggression,  brinkmanship and sustained territorial expansion by China in the region. India's northern neighbour's internal governance accomplishments, especially its economic transformation as well as advances in scientific and technological innovation, are worthy of emulation. But its aspirations for unrestrained territorial expansion and global domination threatens not only India but also others in the region and even the entire world beyond a certain point.

    What is worrying for India is the manner in which the Nepali Prime Minister K P Oli has raked up a fictitious border dispute. He has jeopardised a relationship of mutual trust as well as a longstanding social, cultural, ethnic,  and linguistic  bond. Citing 1815 Sugauli treaty, Oli has suddenly claimed an area that was never shown as Nepali territory even in Nepal's own map. He has not only pushed a legislation through parliament changing the map of the country but also whipped up nationalist passion by several strident anti-India statements.    

      Intriguingly, Kalapani area, on the West side of Kali river, which Nepal has claimed, is located at a height of approximately 20,000  feet close to the tri-junction with the Chinese border. It carries huge strategic importance in eventuality of a conventional Sino-India conflict. Though the Chinese Foreign Ministry has distanced itself from strident anti-Indianism of Oli but the plot is crystal clear to any impartial observer. Other smaller South Asian states have so far remained committed to the India's concerns but the Indian Government has to be cognisant of the fact they are vulnerable to Chinese coercion and enticement.   

      China's has generated border dispute with virtually each of its neighbours as a part of a well-crafted Geo-strategic design, which appears continuation of the policy of territorial expansion of Imperial China.  It entrenches an oppressive regime internally and enhances clout of its incumbents globally. The brazenness with which China has captured the South China Sea and converted it into its own backyard is one of the multiple examples in this direction. As per most estimates, South China sea accounts for nearly 12 to 20 trillion dollar worth of marine resources besides being the second busiest sea lane, accounting for nearly  50% of the world's commodity transportation in terms of tonnage. Simultaneously, China's ambitious belt and road initiative is nothing but yet another aggressive assertion of its global aspirations.


    Communist China has perennially criticized the West for imposing a series of unequal and humiliating treaties on them for 100 years  since 1842. But interestingly, it was Great Britain that was complicit to large-scale Chinese territorial expansion for nearly a century from the beginning of 1800s.  It was imperial British that facilitated Chinese entrenchment in both Tibet and Xinjiang or Eastern Turkistan, the two independent civilizations and states that were culturally closer to India than Han China. Tibetans used Dvenagri script and  Hindustani was a popular language even in Kashgar. The British were keen to keep the Russians at bay over their ongoing rivalry with them in Europe and West Asia.

   By 1840, the entire undivided state of Jammu and Kashmir, including areas held by China and Pakistan was already  part of Sikh empire under autonomous rule of Dogras. In 1841 Dogra troops led by Zorawar Singh had initially captured most of West Tibet up to Mayum pass, garrisoned local forts and set up its own administration. It were British who started complaining to Sikh emperor in Lahore against Zorawar Singh, accusing the legendary General of exacting taxes from British suzerains. There are unconfirmed inputs suggesting that some British officers were eyeing share of lucrative Pashmina trade between Tibet and Laddakh, which was disrupted by the new arrangement. Meanwhile, Tibetans marshalled fresh reinforcements and counter attacked Zorawar Singh's troops, taking them by surprise and killing the General, taking advantage of the inclement weather. They re-captured some of the areas and marched up to Leh only to be comprehensively beaten and chased back. It was under these circumstances that the two sides signed the Treaty of Chushul (1842), which acknowledged Dogra-Sikh sovereignty up to Xydullah and East of Mansarovar Lake, way beyond the undivided territory of Jammu and Kashmir shown in map of 1947.  

     In 1865, when surveyor William Johnson demarcated Kashmir-Tibet boundary, he ceded significant territory back to the Tibetans on map citing inaccessibility from Laddakh and hence difficulty to govern it effectively. Later this became Ardagh-Johnson line when British Chief Military Intelligence officer Maj Gen John Ardagh  proposed (1897) it as formal boundary between British India and Tibet. As per this line, entire Karaksh valley and eastern side of Chang Chenmo valley were part of Kashmir. What really transpired subsequently is still not known, as there was no protest either from Tibetans or from nominees of Qing ruler. But in 1899, a section of British officers cited Chinese reluctance to accept the proposed line  claiming that the Chinese had suddenly developed interest in Aksai Chin at the Russian instigation.  Others suggest that the British kept hedging their position on Sino-Indian border depending on their equations with the Russians in other theatres. Further, there was a change in status of Tibet in 1912, when it signed a treaty with Qings to inherit all its territories in Tibet and became an independent country once again.  

      Intriguingly, amidst Anglo-Russian rivalry, British objectives were dictated by its own larger strategic calculations outside the region. Interests and aspiration of indigenous people of Tibet and India were certainly not a priority. Hence, when they brokered a deal during the famous Shimla convention (1913-14), where McMahon line had emerged as the boundary between India and Tibet, they still acceded nominal suzerainty over inner areas of Tibet, only in deference to Anglo-Russian convention of 1907 which had demarcated the respective spheres of influences of the two sides in Iran, Afghanistan and Tibet. As per provisions of this agreement, the British were obliged to enter into any negotiation with Tibet only in consultation with China. Logically, this clause should have become defunct after independence of Tibet in 1912.  

    This was the time, when China was used both by the British and the Russians to offset each other. Hence, even after Tibet had renounced its 192 years of nominal suzerainty to the Chinese, and that too with the concurrence of Qing regime, the British still invited representatives of the Chinese government to Shimla convention in 1914, to demarcate boundaries among British India, Tibet and China only in deference to Anglo-Russian convention of 1907.  Shimla convention acknowledged complete freedom of Lhasa regime in outer Tibet, that shared a boundary with India, but nominal suzerainty to China in the inner Tibet. Even such suzerainty barred any interference by the Peking or Beijing government in day-to-day  affairs of the Tibetan Government in Lhasa. 

     Though Chinese Government is believed to have reneged on the agreement reached out in Shimla, largely at the instigation of Russians, it still had no locus-standi to talk about the border between Tibet and British India, over which it had lost even nominal sovereignty.  However, there was no confusion even on the Chinese side about the exact border dividing India and Tibet. A map published by Peking University in 1928 had acknowledged Aksai-Chin and large parts of other territories currently disputed by the China, as part of India.     

        It is interesting that in 1950s, even Maoist China did not change imperial outlook notwithstanding its proclamation of communism as state ideology. It not merely captured Tibet but also denounced Shimla convention on the plea that Tibet was not an independent country in 1913-14 and hence had no right to negotiate the boundary. Independent India's first generation of leaders being freedom fighters, lacking any strategic exposure, acquiesced to the Chinese position, in deference to neighbourly bonhomie,ignoring Tibet's longstanding social and cultural linkages with India as well as India's own strategic interests. 

     In 1950s, Chinese quietly built a road through Aksai Chin, nearly 100 kms inside the Indian territory because that was the only route through which an all-weather road could connect Tibet and Xinjiang.  China went to war in 1962 with an an unprepared India that failed to acknowledge the Guerrilla Commander in Mao, who had deftly secured his victories through an element of surprise and deception, catching the adversary unguarded. Chinese occupied nearly 39,000 sq km (approx) of territory and subsequently in 1963 Pakistan ceded another 15000 sqkm (approx). Diplomat magazine reported in 2019 that China had managed to acquire another 640 sq km of Indian territory by constantly pushing the line of actual control. None of the two sides have confirmed it though.


It is well known that the China has been disputing the entire McMahon line, claiming large parts of Indian territory - where people speak Indian languages and follow Buddhist practices and have nothing common with Han China- as their own. Such an approach of China is not restricted to India alone. It has been expanding its territory and domain of influence in all directions. It is nearly impossible, in the prevailing context, for the Chinese political leadership to appreciate Indian perspective, or respect any other power or civilization. This is especially given their habit of enjoying unrestrained access to absolute power and belief in infallibility  of their own wisdom and innate superiority of Han race.

 Even the Confucian morality, or the Confucian concept of harmony, that has become the guiding principle of Chinese state philosophy envisages eternal superiority and authority of the more powerful entity and obedience of the rest to it. The superior power, which in this case being the Chinese state, is restrained only by the moral principles, whereas the rest are expected to obey or at least not defy. 

Communist China has consistently played up the gross historical wrongs inflicted by the Western powers on Han people. They also seem to perceive communist China's spectacular  success as vindication of such a belief. While, they have been dealing with the west but their distrust towards the West and the Western ways has been more than obvious. India's perceived proximity to the West or its adoption of the so-called Western democratic model of governance has remained a permanent cause of their annoyance with India. They have also been discomforted with efforts to put India and China in the same bracket and have made conscious efforts to equate India with other minor powers in the region.           

On the other hand, India has ignored the growing asymmetry of all round power with China for far too long. With five times economic strength and significant edge in technological excellence and innovation, Chinese state may find it more tempting to exert pressure on India in retaliation to growing world-wide pressure over their concealment of Covid-19 spread.


While  India should be able to ward off such brinkmanship for the time being but there is no confusion that the world’s biggest democracy requires serious restructuring of its governance institutions. India shall have to find an endurable solution to the irregular and diffused war with Pakistan.  Conventional military techniques and surgical strikes may provide limited and temporary deterrents but these have appeared inadequate towards finding a permanent solution or obtaining a comprehensive victory. 

Smart diplomacy and deft geopolitical manoeuvrings cannot substitute strong national security architecture with equally powerful strategies that need stronger comprehensive national power to sustain. We have to appreciate that only an economically powerful state, and not a large number of billionaires amidst an ocean of poverty, with high quality human resource, strong technological capacity, robust governance institutions and high level of social cohesion can sustain a powerful national security architecture. 

Ironically, over the past few decades, far too many self-seeking cartels have become so powerful in India that they would be the first to obstruct, or even crush, any idea or initiative towards optimising the collective strengths and capacities of the country. All key stakeholders of India shall have to realise that the unique geopolitics of South Asia has saddled us with formidable national security challenges. As a large state,  we have no liberty to comfortably ignore these to psychologically nestle under perceived protective ambit of some invisible or divine force.

 Exigencies like the ongoing stand-off on the border must be handled with all our existing resources. But we would once again peril security of India as a state and civilisation, if we fail to learn lessons from the past. A strong national security capacity needs a powerful and yet a dynamic vision with a clear road map and commensurate efforts to pursue these. National Security in today's world cannot be a stand alone and isolated proposition. Institution of governance and society need to be increasingly harmonised, and not oppressed, for optimising their output and level of excellence.    



Unknown said...

Dear Jitendra

Excellent and well researched piece placing the entire brinkmanship of China and its relations with its neighbours into perspective.



Jitendra Kumar said...

Thanks Satish. It’s a longish paper and very few serious academics like you could have taken interest in it. I felt I must place on record my perspective on issues with all my humility. The main paper, with detailed pieces of researched information, is coming out in mid September. Appreciate your interest. Regards. Jitendra


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