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Countries that wish to invade do not do so by pitching tents!

May 03, 2013 15:35 IST

What is so honourable in defending or dis-honourable in not defending the 'Johnson line' in Aksai Chin? That is a question that needs to be asked to the Indian shouting brigade. The Chinese also need to be asked as to why they wish to implement the 'MacDonald McCartney' line drawn by British Imperialists? asks Col (retd) Anil Athale.

The recent face of between India and China in the Aksai Chin area makes one feel a strong sense of déjà vu! It is only last year that the country observed the 50th anniversary of that unfortunate conflict and much ink was spilled by the Indian media to assert how ‘1962’ will not be repeated!

Yet what is one to make out of a leading national English daily giving screaming headline, ‘Chinese pitch 5th Tent in disputed area!’ The jingoism, uninformed comments, criticism of government, cries of ‘surrender to the Chinese’. If a Rip Van Vinkle would have woken up after 50 years he would find it all very familiar.

Naville Maxwell’s otherwise biased account (India’s China War) has one very pertinent observation, ‘Indian government was goaded into foolhardy action by an un-informed media and public opinion to embark on a disastrous course of action’.

Let us at least after 50 years be rational and stop being emotional where Aksai Chin is concerned. Aksai Chin was essentially a ‘No Man’s Land’ between Ladakh and Tibet. A god forsaken cold desert where ‘not a blade of grass grows’ as famously remarked by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru! Aksai Chin became part of British India in a typical ‘imperial’ map making exercise that wanted a land wedge between the eastward expanding Russia and Tibet.

The threat never materialised and Aksai Chin remained a line on map. Neither we nor the Chinese showed any interest in this area till the late 1950s when they constructed a road between the two restive provinces of Xingang and Tibet. It was militarily important for them.

They did this unilaterally without even informing India. Instead of acknowledging the Chinese interest and accepting that India had none and the dubious nature of the status of Aksai Chin area, we went in for a ‘maximalist’ solution, claimed whole of Aksai Chin as ours and despite known military weakness embarked on a ‘flag showing’ aggressive creation of small posts to bolster our claim -- as if this was some legal domestic land dispute where possession is 9/10 of law!

Even 51 years after the dispute we seemed stuck in justifying our claims based on legacy of British imperialism! If Aksai Chin had some strategic importance for us then one would understand the use of history in terms of real politick, but our response to the Chinese provocation seems wholly emotional and out of proportion to the Chinese actions.

Countries that wish to invade territory do not do so by pitching tents!

This does not mean that the Chinese actions are merely ‘tactical’ as PM has said. The decision to establish tents and structures in ‘disputed’ areas must have been taken at higher level. If the post established is threatening our access to the areas to the north, then we must take appropriate action. But this is a plea to let the armed forces and government do the needful and there is no need for the ‘emotional’ response.

We must, while safeguarding our interests of defence of Ladakh, also acknowledge that Aksai Chin is indeed a disputed territory. Our claim to this area and Chinese counter claim stands on an entirely different footing than say Arunachal Pradesh. Chinese claim on whole of Arunachal Pradesh is spurious and goes against their own ‘principles’ where they have accepted the MacMohan line and watershed principle to demarcate border with Myanmar.

If one could venture to suggest a solution to Aksai Chin dispute, the Russia-China agreement on Amur-Usuri border offers a good model. But both sides must look at the dispute through a prism of ‘realism’ and discard the baggage of history. 

But the current stand off, certainly initiated by the Chinese, is curious in terms of timing. China is at this very moment engaged in a far more serious face off with Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. The Chinese premier is scheduled to visit India soon. There is scheduled Indo-US meet in May to discuss China specifically.

Is this a ‘signal’ to India to stay away from the US-Japan axis? Or is it a typical media manipulation by the west to thwart and Sino-Indian rapprochement? It is difficult to comment with the fog of disinformation so thick.

A word of caution to the main opposition party in India, it must not play into the hands of media manipulators and make this a ‘domestic’ political issue. All Indians must stand behind the government/armed forces for whatever action they deem fit. It is time the main opposition behaved in a mature manner and not like the leader of opposition did during the 1999 Kargil conflict with Pakistan.

There is a possibility that the Chinese have decided to activate the Sino-Indian border in view of the developing situation in Afghanistan post the US withdrawal in 2014. This may be one of the ways that China wants to help its ‘all weather’ friend Pakistan.

Incidentally, the Chinese help to Pakistan in increasing its nuclear arsenal is far greater provocation as far as India is concerned. Compared to that, the Ladakh incident is a mere pin prick. One also wonders if the Chinese have decided that strengthening its proxy Pakistan is in its long term interest rather than any normalisation of relations with India.

For all the talk of China taking a long-term view of relations, this seems a particularly myopic course of action. A course of action that India has studiously avoided vis a vis China and Taiwan.

While Chou En Lie in 1960s quite rightly pointed out that India and China must move away from the disputes created by Western imperialism, it seems that China is supporting the biggest imperialist creation -- Pakistan!

This author stands by a suggestion made at track II in 2006 that India and China must tackle its border disputes sector by sector. For instance, there is no dispute over the border alignment in Uttarakhand (Garhwal Kumaon area) as well as border along Himachal Pradesh. These could well be demarcated and demilitarised. Aksai Chin area should be demarcated with realistic give and take and China should withdraw its fraudulent claim on Arunachal Pradesh.

Will India and China have the sense to do this before the American power ‘pivots’ to Asia? Future of peace in Asia may well depend on these decisions.

Colonel (retd) Anil Athale is former head and joint direct, war history division and co-author of official history of 1962 Sino-Indian border conflict.  

Col (retd) Anil Athale