India, China and Depsang

The most recent meeting between the two Special Representatives (SRs) for the China-India Boundary Question took place in June last. The two SRs, Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi and the Indian National Security Adviser, Shiv Shankar Menon have apparently decided in this ‘get acquainted’ session that they would go beyond the ‘boundary question’ and look at issues of commonality of the nature of the South China Sea; the East Asia Summit etc.

Clearly, neither side is too militated by the much hyped intrusions that have taken place recently in Ladakh and Aksai Chin. The much talked about Depsang incident of April-May this year do not seem to have injected any sense of urgency in the boundary problem resolution issues. Yet, more than the McMahon Line and Arunachal Pradesh, the icy, barren uninhabited wastelands of Aksai Chin have continued to dominate any discussion about the Sino-Indian border imbroglio. As in the 1961, communication between then Chinese Premier, Zhou Enlai and Jawaharlal Nehru, China still demands most of Aksai Chin as its territory. On the other hand, they are willing to make concessions in Arunachal Pradesh that includes Tawang, which was the end point of an old trade route to Lhasa, the capital of Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) of China. Tawang is also one of the most holy places of the Buddhist Tibetans.

The historically geostrategic location of Aksai Chin made it important for the British to look at it from the viewpoint of the ‘Great Game’ they played with Czarist Russia for the control of Central and South Asia. In the 19th century there have been a large number of expeditions involving British military-men that have gone to the area to explore it. Many representatives of the British Indian government have sought to engage the Tibetan and Chinese rulers to create boundaries around lands that would act as buffer for them, on the face of Russian advances.

Various lines were drawn on the map of the area, the Johnson-Ardagh Line (most discredited), the McCartney-Macdonald Line, the British Foreign Office Line, etc. The lines were drawn and then repudiated by one side or the other, including the British themselves, some times. The latter made a major attempt in finding a border solution at what was famous as the Shimla Conference of 1913-1914. This was after the 1911 revolution in China that brought Chiang Kai Shek of Guomintang and communist forces together to throw out the Manchu dynasty that was ruling China as an empire. The revolution weakened the governance of far flung areas of Tibet and Xinjiang. The Tibetan rulers again reasserted themselves.

The British took the opportunity and summoned the representatives of the two regimes of China and Tibet for a boundary fixation talk at Shimla. They, through their chief delegate to the convention, Sir Henry McMahon got two documents signed; one was a division of Tibet between Inner and Outer Tibet that they made both the Chinese and the Tibetans sign. But the Chinese, who got the so-called Inner Tibet, refused to accept the division even though their representative was made to sign it. The other document was the map that Tibet secretly signed, which demarcated the watershed of the Himalayan range that abounded Assam and eventually became the McMahon Line. This was not communicated to the Chinese ever. The Chinese (both the Guomintang and the communists) did not accept the Line.

In light of their repudiation and McMahon’s failure in April, 1914, to get the Chinese acquiescence, led the British representative to sign a separate agreement with just the Tibetans in July of that year. This was completely unacceptable to the Chinese. But cutting back to 1956 independent India, which claimed its sovereignty on all territories claimed by the British, emphasised the Johnson-Ardagh line that brought in the whole Aksai Chin out of Tibet and into India. This was the same WH Johnson, whose demarcation of the border on Aksai Chin ran through the watershed of the Kuenlun range in the north, and was reviled by his own government leading to his resignation from the Survey General’s office. The same year the Chinese changed the status-quo - though Zhou Enlai in his earlier communications to Nehru had made references of not having any boundary disputes with India – by building a road from Xinjiang to Tibet that ran to the south of the Kuenlun range. This challenged the Nehru government’s claim.

What eventually followed was the 1962 war between the two countries, when the PLA pushed up to the southern edge of the Aksai Chin and included the whole of it in TAR. But when the forces withdrew and tempers cooled, India was able to establish its own ‘claim line’ up to a ridge of the Laktsang range, which was an 1899 proposal of a British political officer, deified by Lord Elgin and what became known as McCartney-McDonald Line. South of the Laktsang ridge that can be identified even from satellites in space, runs the Karakoram range with its own watershed, where out of this cartographic nightmare lies the salvation of the Sino-Indian resolution of boundary dispute. The two SRs have now decided that they would go sectorally – thus when they take the Western sector – the bargaining chip will be the territory that lies between the Laktsang ridge and the Karakoram range.

The author is a senior journalist

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