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January 12, 2001
Colonel Anil Athale (retd)
For the first time in 50 years, China may well see some advantage in securing peace with India, says Colonel Anil Athale (retd), co-author of the official history of the October war.
The Sino-Indian border row is recent in origin because for nearly 5,000 years there was no military clash between the two Asian giants. The difficult geography as well as the non-expansionist nature of the Indian civilisation were the main factors for this absence of conflict.
The modern Sino-Indian border dispute centres on the remote area of Aksaichin that is located north east of the Ladakh region. Aksaichin lies beyond the Karakoram range and rests on the Kunlun mountain range.
The origin of the Indian border being placed on the Kunlun mountains (and not the revered Himalayas as popularly imagined) goes back to the early 19th century. At that time the Russians were expanding eastward and the British, afraid of their threat to India, decided to put a wedge between Central Asia and Tibet by laying claims to the Aksaichin area. But as the Russian threat waned, this remained a mere line on the map and neither China nor the British seriously got it under their occupation. Since Aksaichin has no human habitation and no known economic sources, this bleak cold desert remained a 'no man's land' through most of the 20th century, right till the 1950s.
In 1959, China built a highway through this area linking the provinces of Sinkiang and Tibet. This is of great strategic significance for China as geography precludes a direct link between these two troubled provinces from any other place. India came to know about this only when China chose to publicise the inauguration of this road.
Like the British discovered in 19th century, India too came to a conclusion that the area of Aksaichin is of no strategic importance, whether for defence or as a springboard for offence. But once the Chinese highhandedness was discovered, the opposition and public opinion was so incensed that Nehru's government was forced into making it an issue of national prestige. Some degree of American machination (to drive away India from non-alignment) could have also played a role.
It is believed that in December 1960, Zhou Enlai offered the strategic Chumbi valley in the east (the area that threatens rest of India's link with Assam) in exchange for Aksaichin. But a weak willed Nehru rejected this out of hand and instead launched a militarily disastrous 'Forward Policy' of establishing small posts in the Aksaichin area.
After this the Chinese methodically prepared for a military clash while India under the influence of amateur General B M Kaul went on to disregard military logic.
In October 1962, taking advantage of the Cuban missile crisis, the Chinese launched a full scale attack and routed the ill-equipped Indian Army.
There was no Chinese betrayal, but mere Indian blundering. It is time to put the past behind us and revive the 1960 proposals.
The time seems appropriate for a rapprochement between India and China. The Chinese seem worried about the fallout of Islamic terrorism in the Sinkiang province. As a matter of fact, they have fenced off the border with Pakistan to prevent infiltration. The Americans under George W Bush are also likely to be tougher on China.
All this may prompt China to reduce its arming of Pakistan and the needling of India on Kashmir in return for Indian neutrality in the Sino-US confrontation in future. For the first time in the last 50 years, China may well see some advantage in securing peace with India.
Indian public opinion will need to show matured understanding on the border issue if this is to happen.
The Chinese are known to be supreme realists. China will only deal with an India that is economically and militarily strong. In the end the best guarantee for peace with China may well lie in continuing the Indian nuclear programme that can deter China and the economic clout that can make dealing with India profitable.
Design: Dominic Xavier
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