It is often stated that at the strategic level, one requires a long memory and a longer foresight and vision. There are many people in India who have a tendency to overlook the Sino-Pak strategic nexus in the dialogue over India’s boundaries with these two countries. Boundaries are a manifestation of national identity. Disputed boundaries are often trip-wires of war.
It is, therefore, necessary to place this issue in its historical and futuristic perspective.
Soon after its Independence in 1949, China set out consolidating its historic frontiers and placing administrative authority and military boots on the ground in Tibet and Xinjiang. India did not do so and rues till date this Himalayan blunder in strategic terms. India’s northern boundary from the Sino-India-Afghanistan tri-junction to the Sino-India-Nepal tri-junction on the maps remained marked with the legend ‘Boundary Undefined’ till 1954. No serious attempt was made to establish administrative authority or place military boots on the ground in this area.
On July 1, 1954, Nehru ordered, “All old maps dealing with the frontier should be… withdrawn… new maps should not state there is any undemarcated territory… this frontier should be considered a firm and definite one which is not open to discussion with anybody.” By then, China had placed its military boots in Tibet and Aksai Chin and started the construction of a strategic road connecting Tibet to Xinjiang (China National Highway 219). Construction of this strategic road, started in 1951 but not noticed by India till 1955, was completed in 1957. It was seen in the Chinese maps published in 1958.
Nehru tried to justify the loss of Aksai Chin by calling it ‘a desolate area where not a blade of grass grows’. Nevertheless, it became one of the triggers for the Sino-Indian war of 1962.
Soon after the war, China began Xinjiang boundary negotiations with Pakistan. This was a period when both China and Pakistan were upset over the post 1962 war US military assistance to India. They signed the Sino-Pakistan Border Agreement in 1963 in which Pakistan ceded Shaqsgam Valley of the Northern Areas (J&K territory, under occupation of Pakistan) to China. This agreement described the eastern termination of the Sino-Pakistan boundary at Karakoram Pass. Pakistan promptly delineated NJ 9842 on the Soltoro Range towards the North East to Karakoram Pass, ignoring “thence north to the glaciers” statement of the 1948 Karachi Agreement between India and Pakistan. The result: Karakoram Pass, till then on the boundary between India and China, now had a third party access and claimant.
China maintained a studied silence over the Pakistani cartographic manipulation. It continued to show the area north of Karakoram Pass as being under China. Meanwhile, Pakistan and China started building the Karakoram Highway, linking Xinjiang to Pakistan through the northern areas.
Pakistan’s cartographic manipulation was followed up in international mountaineering journals and Western atlases. It started sending civil and military mountaineering expeditions to the mountain peaks and glaciers in this area.
It would be noted that the Chinese were willing to negotiate and settle the boundary issue of J&K (west of Karakoram Pass) with Pakistan. But they have refused to discuss that boundary with India on the ground of its being ‘disputed’. That ‘dispute’ did not come in the way of their negotiations with Pakistan.
In April 1984, India reacted to these developments and intelligence reports about Pakistan Army plans to deploy troops in the Siachen glacier area by occupying the Soltoro Ridge (now called the Actual Ground Position Line or AGPL) to secure the glacier and the territory to its east. This deployment (a) dominates Pakistani positions in the valley west of Soltoro Ridge (b) blocks infiltration possibilities across the Soltoro Ridge passes into Ladakh (c) prevents Pakistani military adventurism in Turtuk and areas to its south. Its northernmost position at Indira Col overlooks the Shaqsgam Valley, illegally ceded by Pakistan to China, and denies Pakistani access to Karakoram Pass and beyond that to Aksai Chin.
In 1987, China and Pakistan signed the protocol to formalise the demarcation of their boundary. Its termination at Karakoram Pass and Pakistani recognition of Chinese sovereignty over Aksai Chin clearly indicated an understanding between them. In the late 1980s, China started assisting Pakistan on the development of nuclear weapons, long-range missiles and in large-scale sale of conventional weapons and equipment.
In 1997, China agreed to send its military commander opposite Ladakh to meet his India counterpart in Leh as a confidence-building measure. Near the date, it was proposed that the meeting be held in New Delhi instead of Leh. It had to be called off. After the Kargil war, military attaches from all countries except Pakistan were invited for a conducted tour of the battle zone. The Chinese attaché declined that invitation.
Three years ago, China started issuing “stapled visas” to visitors from J&K, thus bringing into question its status as part of India. It refused a visa to the GOC-in-C, Northern Command, who was to make an official visit to China as a part of ongoing military-level exchanges. It has now increased its civil and military presence in the northern areas, purportedly to improve infrastructure there. Among the infrastructure reconstruction projects to be given priority are those related to the repair and upgradation of the Karakoram Highway, which was damaged in 2009. China also plans to construct railway tracks and oil pipelines from Kashgar in Xinjiang to Gwadar port in Pakistan.
In December 2010, while addressing a joint session of the Pakistan parliament, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao stated: “To cement and advance the all-weather strategic partnership of cooperation between China and Pakistan is our common strategic choice…The two neighbouring countries are brothers forever. China-Pakistan friendship is full of vigour and vitality, like a lush tree with deep roots and thick foliage. China-Pakistan relationship is strong and solid, like a rock standing firm despite the passage of time.”
Recently, India and Pakistan resumed talks over the Siachen glacier issue. As in the past, Pakistan refuses to authenticate the AGPL and the existing troops’ positions and demands the Indian troops’ withdrawal to the pre-1972 position i.e. to the east of the line joining NJ 9842 and Karakoram Pass. Pakistan had formally authenticated the line of control in 1949 and 1972 but has consistently refused this position. The strategic consequences of a deal without such a formal authentication are obvious. Besides, it will re-introduce China into the end game because of its illegal control over the Shaqsgam Valley.
Without formal authentication of the AGPL, how does one detect any future encroachment into this area? It must be stated categorically that no amount of existing technology can have fool-proof surveillance and capability to detect small-scale infiltration, which is sufficient to hold and defend a tactical feature in this terrain. Can India afford to forego the strategic significance of the Soltoro position due to the financial cost-benefit ratio analyses? Or because not a blade of grass grows in the area? (Then why put up the Indian flag at Gangotri in South Pole?) Can India trust Pakistan to the extent of foregoing formal authentication of the AGPL after what Gen Pervez Musharraf did across the formally delineated LoC in Kargil? Our negotiators must keep all these points in mind in their discussions with Pakistani counterparts.
In his latest book On China, Henry Kissinger states that China’s strategy generally exhibits three characteristics: meticulous analysis of long-term trends, careful study of tactical options and detached exploration of operational decisions”. He describes the Chinese style of dealing with strategic decisions as “thorough analysis, careful preparations, attention to psychological and political factors, quest for surprise, and rapid conclusion.” There is much that our political leaders and officials can learn from China’s strategic thinking.
Courtesy: The Tribune, 11 June 2011
The writer is a former Chief of Army Staff
(The views expressed in the article are that of the author and do not represent the views of the editorial committee or the centre for land warfare studies).