Orientation and Background to the India-China Boundary Issue Colloquially, the terms boundary and border are used interchangeably, but a boundary is the line between two states that marks the limits of sovereign jurisdiction. In other words, a boundary is a line agreed upon by both states and normally delineated on maps and demarcated on the ground by both states. A border, on the other hand, is a zone between two states, nations, or civilizations. It is frequently also an area where people, nations and cultures intermingle and are in contact with one another.
Three distinct steps are involved in boundary making. The first step is to have an overall political understanding of the basic boundary alignment. This step is referred to as allocation. The second is to translate this general understanding to lines on a map and this process is called delineation. The third and final step is to transpose the lines drawn on a map to physical markers on the ground[i]. This step is called demarcation. Quite clearly therefore a boundary settlement is not a simple drawing of lines on a map or a demarcation on the ground.It is a significant political act. The Principle of ‘uti possidetis juris’ enshrined in international jurisprudence was invariably followed when it came to settling boundary claims. This principle states that whenever a state becomes independent, it automatically inherits colonial boundaries and that any effort to occupy or violate state territory after it became independent would be considered ineffective and of no legal consequence.
This principle was recognised by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) as legally valid in the Burkina-Faso vs Mali (1986) case. Further, if a state acquires knowledge of an act which it considers internationally illegal, and in violation, and nevertheless does not protest; this attitude implies a renunciation of such rights, provided that a protest would have been necessary to preserve a claim[ii]. This appears the only logical reason that Prime Minister Zhou en Lai rejected Nehru’s offer of taking the boundary issue to the ICJ out rightly as conveyed in his letter of January 1, 1963.
Standoff at the LAC in East Ladakh
The Chinese have occupied Indian territory (our perception of the LAC) in at least two strategically important locations, viz, Depsang Plains and Area Fingers North of Pangong Tso lake. India and specially our Army has bewildered and shocked China with her resolve, bravery and professionalism. On night of 14/15 Jun 2020, our tactical acumen and physical bravery at Galwan set the stage, and firmly conveyed to China that ‘it was not business as usual of continued soft salami slicing’, and repeat doses frequently. The Indian Army followed it up by occupying pivotal defensive positions on night 29/30 August 2020, astride the Kailash range in the Southern Bank of Pangong Tso in the Chushul Sector on own side of the LAC, making the Chinese deployment on the Northern bank vulnerable, and pre-empting any further adventurism by them in the strategically important Chushul sub-sector.
Chinese Deception Strategy: Keep Talking
Concurrently, while all the action was happening on the ground, Chinese as is their practice of subterfuge, continued engaging in talks at the military, bureaucratic, diplomatic and political level with Indian counterparts. There is absolutely no ambiguity on the following aspects regarding the LAC.
- China has unambiguously violated all Peace and Tranquillity Agreements and CBMs (confidence building measures), and changed the status quo on ground. Chinese troop positions in beginning of April 2020 and mid-May 2020 simply gives the game away unequivocally.
- After so many years of ‘salami slicing’ and inching forward along the LAC; it just cannot be ‘business as usual’, as repeatedly clarified by our External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaiashankar. Belligerent actions along the LAC cannot be de-linked from other matters like economic cooperation, trade etc.
- There is a complete breakdown of trust as far as the Indian Armed Forces are concerned. China has repeatedly spoken with a forked tongue, talks one language while simultaneously acting contrary to its assurances.
- The outstanding act of valour displayed by our troops at Galwan, and our operational initiative of preempting the Chinese and occupying decisive and dominating heights on the Southern Banks of Pangong Tso on night of 29/30 August 2020, have handed over the initiative to the Army and India, and provided the leverage for our diplomats and political hierarchy to speak from a position of strength.
- Our soldiers on ground should not be expected to adhere to the existing protocols any more. The rules of engagement have changed, and needs to be revisited forcefully (already done and orders passed by Army HQ).
- Even as I write, the five-point agreement signed by the two Foreign Ministers is being re-interpreted to suit Chinese interests (Chinese Foreign Ministry, media).
- The Indian Armed Forces are fully prepared to hunker down and spend the winter in the harsh, desolate environment of Ladakh, and face all challenges thrown at them and take the fight to the adversary, if necessitated.
China has crossed Indian Red Lines: Even Status Quo Ante to April 2020 Not Enough
How can our Army trust the Chinese on any future agreement like pull back, or maintain current status quo, create buffer zones (talk in some circles) and the ilk? It also comes with tremendous challenges for implementation on ground on such a long LAC even within East Ladakh, by our commanders and troops on ground. There is lot of talk in open channels on the way forward.
There is also a deep worry especially amongst the veteran community and defence experts, that gains ‘made on ground’ should not be frittered away in the altar of quick peace, establishing stability, for political expediency, especially in view of significantly important upcoming elections, and agree to a compromise solution on ground. Given the Chinese repeated perfidy, deceit and deception along the LAC, and blatant violations of all protocols year after year, even a reversion to status quo ante of April 2020 should not be acceptable, and our soldiers and commanders may balk at the idea.
Withdrawing from the Kailash Range heights is NOT RECOMMENDED at any cost, as it has strategic ramifications, and occupation by the Chinese in future by stealth, will have grave consequences, and very costly to retake. The option of reviewing and coming up with fresh protocols/agreements does not provide any level of confidence that they will be adhered to by the Chinese.
Recommended Workable Solution for Long Term Peace and Stability
First and foremost, the political policy makers (PM, CCS, NSA), diplomats, bureaucrats and most importantly the senior military commanders (CDS and the tri-services Chiefs) MUST be on the same page and reach a consensus on the best ‘way ahead’ which does not compromise on India’s sovereignty and aspirations. To my mind the most workable solution is for India and the Armed Forces to insist on delineation and demarcation of the LAC with China. While to achieve it is challenging, it is the best option to provide at least temporary peace and stability, and provides a fillip and direction to the permanent resolution of the India-China boundary issue.
[i] ‘India-China Boundary Issues: Quest for Settlement’, by Ambassador Kalha, Pentagon Press, 2014; also used in paper written for USI of India as part of yet to be published book on the ‘India-China Boundary Issue: the Way Forward’, by the author.
[ii] Oppenheim. International Law: A Treatise (London: Longman, Green & Co 1955), pp. 874-5.