India’s two-front conundrum

2020 may be a different era but a replica of ’62 is in play

Shahzad Chaudhry May 31, 2020
A Reuters file image.

Neville Maxwell was The Times, London’s brilliant reporter on South Asia. He arrived in Delhi in 1959 and left his post in 1967, during which he chronicled the Indo-China war of 1962. He then researched extensively for his book India’s China War which appeared in 1970 and is considered the most authentic account of the war. It details how the political, strategic, diplomatic and military relations soured between two close friends, nay brothers in popular perception (Hindi-Cheeni Bhai Bhai), beginning around the mid-50s. Boundary disputes, Aksai Chin across Ladakh, and Tibet were the major irritants between the two.

India in 1950 accepted China’s suzerainty over Tibet; McMahon Line was agreed as an acceptable demarcation of the limits of ‘actual control’, Bhutan and eastwards, to be finally resolved between the two. British-India ceded Aksai Chin to Sinkiang (Xinjiang). The Indians, post-independence, remained deliberately ambivalent. The British also accepted China’s control over Tibet but kept their interest alive. The historical context is immensely interesting. In 1860s a disquiet was stirred by the British in the western extremity of China in what is now Xinjiang, and a new state, called ‘Kashgaria’, was created. That is when the new state claimed Aksai Chin as its integral part. The British happily accepted. It would afford the British a direct route into Central Asia. The Chinese however soon reacted and put both matters of ‘Kashgaria’ and Aksai Chin to rest.

Aksai Chin’s other contiguity was to Tibet which in 1950 came under Chinese control from its short-lived independence encouraged by Britain, the US and India. Britain never really gave up on their Tibet dream necessarily to poke China for strategic gain. The US inherited similar interest as she supplanted its influence over territories previously under Britain. She thus offered India airlift capability to position a Brigade in Tibet which she felt would be sufficient to oust the Chinese. Initially India concurred to China’s incorporation of Tibet but continued to offer the good offices of her consulate to both, the US and Britain, in pursuit of their common interests. India considered China’s readiness to respect the McMahon Line as a temporary border as a quid pro quo for Tibet but was fatally wrong in testing the assumption in the western sector.

Ladakh and the Aksai Chin however were another matter. Connected to the larger Kashmir dispute and its unresolved status China’s counter-claims across Aksai Chin into what India controlled meant that peace was tentative and largely dependent on mutual restraint and in keeping the status quo. In 1962 India challenged that position along the entire length of their border including Ladakh and were suitably dispatched by the Chinese.

2020 may be a different era but a replica of ’62 is in play. The focus is on Ladakh and the surrounding region. The Indians never gave up on Aksai Chin and cavort parts of it far more now because of its strategic criticality. It extends in the west to Siachen and in the north-east to KK Pass threatening CPEC — part of China’s flagship BRI project. In 1868 terrain to the north from Pangong Lake to the KK Pass was left unmarked as ‘terra incognito’ — impassable and uninhabited; just as Kashmir remained unmarked beyond Point 9842 broadly proposing ‘due north’ in the Karachi Agreement of 1949 for CFL delineation. The latter gave rise to the Siachen dispute giving incentive to the Indians to try a similar hand with the Chinese. It came to a sorry pass in 1962 and will probably find a similarly sad end again now.

There was another factor. 2019 saw multifaceted assaults by India on many fronts. The revocation of Article 370, India’s claim to annexation of J&K and the subsequent separation of Ladakh from the state as a Union Territory paved the way for treating Ladakh differently than J&K. This restraint when removed by Delhi’s misstep enabled China to face off India’s covert attempts at building defences, airfield and a road network in the disputed territories converting the dispute into an Indo-China flashpoint. India’s suppression of the Kashmiris is already established while she also alienated and opened another front against the Muslims in India, and got away with it all with not a nation raising their voice in support of the dispossessed Kashmiris or the hapless Indian Muslims. Modi felt a little wind in his sail. India next launched a cartographic aggression printing maps showing major disputed territories in Aksai Chin, AJK and GB as Indian territories. Hoping that a world distracted by Covid-19 and a China under a negative international spotlight on the issue may not find the enthusiasm to intervene in localised issues. India’s incremental encroachment testifies to her expansionist aims seeking territorial gains threatening its neighbours with military aggression.

After India’s China war in 1962, Pakistan moved to establish a closer relationship with China. One settlement between the two recognised China’s claim on Aksai Chin. India objected, forgetting that the contiguous territories to Aksai Chin now also fell in the control of Pakistan save those across Ladakh. Pakistan accepted China’s control of the region pending a final resolution of the Kashmir dispute. India felt differently proffering its own claim over the territory. Separation of Ladakh from J&K now pitches India in direct confrontation with China. Pakistan settled her ownership dispute, India didn’t for its part of the contiguous region. In 2020, India wishes to alter the status quo with force and that is where its current problems with China — and in Jammu and Kashmir — are lain threatening a war between three nuclear neighbours in the region.

Despite the earlier bonhomie and the bhai-bhai rhetoric between India and China in the 50s and the 60s, and numerous summits between China’s Chou En Lai and Jawahar Lal Nehru, when things headed South and a war appeared imminent, the US approached its bosom-ally, Pakistan, to refrain from exploiting the strategic space on Kashmir. The nice guy that Pakistan was duly complied issuing a statement or two in reassuring India of its noble intent. In 2020 it is again the US whose interests are strategically most served if India takes on China and embroils it in a war. India has again taken the bait on American bidding. But there is something to remember.

In 1959, after a series of adverse developments on Tibet — which heightened tensions between the two neighbours — the then Chinese Ambassador to Delhi noted while addressing India’s Foreign Secretary: “China’s enemy lay in the east, where vicious and aggressive American imperialism had many military bases directed against China… China will not be foolish to antagonize the US in the east and India in the west. China will only concentrate its main attention eastwards of China”. And then, “Friends! It seems to us that you too cannot have two fronts. Will you think it over”. They want to war three years later. Today, the US is no bosom-buddy and Pakistan is an iron-brother with China. And India has foolishly opened multiple fronts, signs of a bankrupt policy, laying itself vulnerable to its biggest fear ever — a two-front war. Will India learn, this time round?

Published in The Express Tribune, May 31st, 2020.

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