One cannot but be surprised at our political, historical and strategic naivety in underestimating the likely Chinese reaction in what they feel are siege situations against them. Any number of signals had come to reveal their anger against India well before the present border stand-off which exploded on the night of June 15. Yet we ignored all that, assessing that these were due to their internal power struggle or that they wanted to coerce us during the proposed WHO inquiry on the origins of coronavirus.
Instead, we were fed with visuals of certain incidents which we thought were due to our over-arching global influence, but which in the Chinese mind were provocations. The first incident was on May 24, when two prominent BJP parliamentarians attended the “virtual swearing in ceremony” on May 24, along with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, of the second term of Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen. China lodged a formal protest, describing their attendance as efforts to undermine its national integrity.
The second was on June 2, when President Donald Trump invited Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the G-7 Summit when the China border ‘stand-off’ was also discussed. Soon thereafter, Russia suggested that without China’s presence G-7 would be meaningless. China also ridiculed Trump’s attempts “to draw a small circle” against Beijing.
The third was PM Modi’s ‘virtual summit’ with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on June 4 to conclude a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’. Scott Morrison is a red rag for China due to his alignment with Trump on the coronavirus origins. He does not know how to overcome his own problem about Australian actor Karm Gilespie, who is facing a death sentence in China on drug charges.
There were many such earlier incidents, which we should have taken note of to prep are adequate border vigilance. We failed to do that. In one of my recent columns on the border stand-off I had referred to a 1970 top secret CIA case study of the Chinese reaction to the then mighty Soviet Union on similar border problems. The study had revealed the Chinese habit of exacerbating border tensions when bilateral relations worsen: “Mao’s land claim was indeed part of the bitter political feud, and Mao’s main goal was to extract a political surrender, rather than small territorial concessions, as the price for a final settlement”.
The paper also highlighted China’s double standards. The concept of “Line of Actual Control”, which they had insisted on India, was not demanded from the Soviets. “In dealing with the Soviets the Chinese have maintained a convenient silence on the ploy they used against the Indians”. It also assessed that these border claims were moves to provide Mao a political victory. Their tactics of “pushing and shoving” on the Ussuri and Amur river basin were intended to humiliate the Soviet Union. Finally, this resulted in the 1969 skirmish and the brutal deaths of 59 Soviet soldiers, which unnerved the USSR. The paper also said that Mao was prepared to “accept more punishment for his forces than they thought he would” and he was “prepared to live with a tense border situation indefinitely”.
Yet China would wait patiently for solving border problems when bilateral relations improve. In 1986, Mikhail Gorbachev made a conciliatory speech at Vladivostok which was received well by Deng Xiaoping, who set aside “intractable issues” to be solved by “future generations”. The final settlement signed on June 2, 2005 was beneficial to China, as Russia parted with the upstream end of Bear Island to China, thereby restoring Fuyuan Channel to it as its inland waterway.
Chinese assertiveness and arrogance increased with simultaneous border agreements with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which had inherited some of the border issues after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. All of them were enticed with liberal financial aid, although in the long run they are the losers by accepting the leasing of large tracts of land to Chinese farmers who are building enclaves within these countries. Already, local agitations have erupted.
In 1971 and 1972 China considered India as Soviet Union’s surrogate as the transcripts of Zhou-Enlai-Kissinger and Zhou-Enlai-Nixon talks would indicate. Zhou blamed Nehru for claiming “their” Aksai-Chin plateau from 1956 onwards under Nikita Khrushchev’s instigation. In 1972, Zhou included Indira Gandhi among China’s adversaries for threatening Pakistan. China’s opinion about India improved after Rajiv Gandhi’s epoch making visit in 1988, although it came after the 1987 Sumdorong Chu valley stand-off.
For about 10 years things were normal till May 13, 1998, when New York Times published the leaked letter of Prime Minister Vajpayee to President Bill Clinton, blaming China for our nuclear tests during the same year. That rekindled China’s suspicion that we were gravitating towards the US to encircle them. The same fears were confirmed since 2014, when our strategic relations with America were raised to a higher level by Prime Minister Modi. A number of incidents had confirmed their fears.
On June 3, 2019, Open Democracy, a UK based political website published a piece, titled India and America collude to disrupt China-Pakistan Economic Corridor . It contained sensational allegations that the US was out to unsettle Pakistan’s Balochistan, the heart of CPEC, with Indian help. It alleged that RAW via its proxies had “propagated” numerous murders of Chinese engineers in Balochistan, and that the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), supported by India, had attacked the Chinese consulate in Karachi in November 2018.
On February 6, 2020 the Lok Sabha was informed that the government had conveyed its concerns to the Chinese on the ‘China-Pakistan Economic Corridor’ (CPEC), which passed through those parts of the Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh that are under illegal occupation of Pakistan. It had also asked them to cease such activities.
On November 2, 2019, New Delhi released new maps of India showing the Union territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh consequent to the abrogation of Article 370 on August 5, 2019. The new map did not take into consideration the disputed Aksai Chin and showed it as part of Ladakh, leading to a protest by China’s foreign Ministry spokesman: “The Indian Government officially announced the establishment of so- called Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh Union territories which included some of China’s territory into its administrative jurisdiction”. They claimed that this violated border accords signed by India.
That this new map was strongly objected to at higher levels in the Chinese leadership was not known publicly in India. This was known only on June 12 this year when a national daily released a report by the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), linking the present LAC tension to the new map. According to the daily, this report, for the first time, criticised the new map which “posed a challenge to the sovereignty of Pakistan and China”. The report was distributed by the Chinese embassy in Islamabad. It said that the new map “forced China into the Kashmir dispute, stimulated China and Pakistan to take counter actions on the Kashmir issue and dramatically increased the difficulty in resolving the border issue between China and India”.
Also, the report revealed that the Chinese foreign minister had voiced “his strong opposition” to our external affairs minister S. Jaishankar during his visit last year following the abrogation of Article 370. “The week before the August visit, Union home minister Amit Shah had spoken in Parliament about taking back Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) and Aksai Chin. The most important remark to be noted in the CICIR report is that India’s ‘double confidence’ behind the change of maps is due to its 2019 election victory and that the United States and some other Western countries ‘puffed India up from an ideological point of view’ to hedge ‘against China’,” the article in the daily noted.
Foreign minister Jaishankar, with his vast experience of Chinese leadership, should have anticipated Chinese reaction on the ground at a time of their choosing. Did he catalyse our better border vigilance?
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Immediately after the incident on June 16, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi seized the early propaganda advantage by accusing India of “violating the consensus of the two sides by illegally crossing the border twice and carrying out provocative attacks on Chinese soldiers, resulting in serious physical clashes”.
Compared to that, India’s reaction, especially by our external affairs ministry, was feeble, confused and delayed. We were not even able to issue a statement to the distraught public giving details. Even the casualty figures could not be confirmed till 10 pm on the 16th. Even now this is tentative. There was not even unanimity on whether the incident was within the buffer zone or in India’s territory. Why then did our spokespersons repeat claims that the Chinese did not occupy our territory?
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Thus, China is using the same language it used against India while justifying its 1962 incursions into India. In 1972, Zhou en Lai had accused Nehru of being a surrogate of Nikita Khrushchev during his talks with President Richard Nixon in Beijing. The same charge is now levelled against Narendra Modi. The 1962 attack was to insult Nehru, while the 2020 attack is to discredit Narendra Modi.
(Views expressed are personal)
The writer is a former special secretary, Cabinet Secretariat.