ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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What Is Behind The Chinese "Incursion" At Daulet Beg Oldi?

Behind the nationalist hysteria which has been whipped up over the Chinese army setting up camp in territory claimed by India in Ladakh, lies a long history of self-delusion and aggressive posturing on the border. This article throws a contrary, and sobering, light on India’s latest border scrap.

That is a familiar question with an old answer: aggressive moves by the Indian army, precautionary reactions by the Chinese in case India intends to renew the “forward policy” attempt to drive them out of Indian-claimed territory.  This is exactly how the 1962 border war began, with a Chinese reaction to aggressive moves by the Indian army, which reaction in turn aroused in India a clamorous press and political demand for a belligerent response, leading a deluded Indian government in effect to declare war on China.
That is how it was with Dhola Post, set up by India several miles north of the McMahon Line at its western extremity in June 1962 in implementation of Nehru’s absurd “forward policy”, with which he planned to extrude the Chinese from Indian-claimed territory in a process of semi-violent harassment.  For over a year Beijing had been meeting that puny challenge passively, using its overwhelming advantages in mobility, numbers and armament merely to block the Indian army’s gallant attempts to carry out its besotted orders – Mao Zedung quipping that since the Indians rejected peaceful coexistence they would have “armed coexistence”. Accordingly an outnumbering Chinese force laid siege to Dhola Post.
The Nehru government had trapped itself years before when it began accusing China of committing “aggression” by the mere fact of being in occupation of territory India claimed.  Thus Nehru put himself under increasingly fierce political pressure to unleash the army to “repel the aggression”, and when the Chinese investment of Dhola Post was mis-represented as a transgression of the McMahon Line he gave way and ordered the army to attack the Chinese at Dhola Post and drive them back, publicly announcing that decision.  The operation he had sanctioned looked to driving Chinese troops, who greatly outnumbered and out-gunned the Indians, out of fortified positions on the towering Thagla Ridge, a militarily impossible task. Which attempt, never-the-less, the hapless troops of 7 Brigade launched on 9 October 1962, triggering  China’s pre-emptive “counter-attack in self-defence” launched eleven days later.
What, in that historical context, is going on in the Daulet Beg Oldi region? And could something like that escalation to war occur there?
So far as the Chinese are concerned that area is not in dispute.  They occupy all the territory within what they consider to be “the traditional and customary border line”, running through the Karakoram Pass, and up to a long-established – but not formally defined -- line of actual control (LAC).  Daulet Beg Oldi (once a caravanserai) is recognised as being in Indian territory: it was not attacked or occupied in 1962 though the Indian army evacuated it. But in the Indian perception the entire area including and beyond the Karakorams up to the distant Kuen Lun Mountain range, encompassing the desolate Aksai Chin plateau, is Indian territory under illicit Chinese occupation.  This was the main arena of the forward policy, and from mid-1961 to late October 1962 Indian troops were struggling to advance into it as far as dire logistical difficulties and the resolute Chinese impediment would allow.
Since last year there has been a significant Indian build-up at DBO.  Indian newspapers have reported reinforcement of the garrison, the induction of heavy artillery, even armour, and a landing strip laid in 1962 has been re-activated to facilitate supply.  What is the Indian purpose?  A Chinese invasion at that point is inconceivable, so it cannot be defensive.  A 1993 treaty bound both governments to reduce force levels on the LAC “to a minimum level compatible with friendly and good neighbourly relations”.  From what level or element of the Indian state does the impetus for this force augmentation come?  From the military?  In 1987 a bellicose chief of army staff, General Sundarji, did his best to set off a “second round” in which the army could wipe away the 1962 humiliation, and nearly succeeded.  From the civilian side;  would India wish to make a petty gesture to align itself with the Americans’ confrontational “pivot” against the Peoples Republic of China?  Surely not.
So the question, “What are the Indians up to at Daulet Beg Oldi?” hangs unanswered.  But it must certainly be a pressing one for the Peoples Liberation Army commander in the area.  Small wonder then, that he has set up a new post as far forward as his perception of the LAC alignment will allow. To demonstrate that its purpose is observational and inoffensive, but also not transitory, it is unfortified, merely a tented encampment.  But that has been quite enough to set off cries of alarm and anger in the Indian press, to be picked up and magnified internationally.  
It is most likely that in spite of that hysteria the essential pettiness of the incident will soon transpire, with calm restored – at least so far as calm can be achieved along an undefined border between two states not long ago at war.  So there’s the crux of the matter: why is the Indian sector of China’s long border undefined?  All China’s other neighbours, around a dozen of them, have diplomatically agreed and defined their boundaries. Why does India remain the sole exception?
No opportunity to explain that anomaly should be missed: as with so much of modern India, it all began with the British. In 1914 they attempted to induce China to cede a significant tract of territory to give India a “strategic frontier” in its north-east.  They failed.  In the mid-1930 they revived that attempt, this time shunning diplomatic niceties and, taking advantage of China’s impotence, simply annexing the target tract, while forging the official diplomatic record to cloak their action with spurious legitimacy.  No doubt they expected that in due time China would get over its indignation and acquiesce to the facts on the ground (and they were right there, the PRC was ready to legitimize the situation).
Thus a border dispute with China was congenital to independent India – and Nehru rendered that affliction incurable by sustaining the British falsification and refusing to submit the dispute to negotiation.  Then he metastasised it by laying claim to the Aksai Chin area in India’s north-west, a claim without British precedent or any basis in treaty, usage or geography, deluding the Indian public by having new official maps published falsely showing the whole of India’s northern borders as settled and internationally agreed.
No successor government of India has even attempted to free the country from its impalement on Nehru’s vaunt, “India’s borders are non-negotiable”.  All have clung instead to his casuistical distinction between negotiation, which they refuse, and “talks” in which they will engage apparently forever.  There is no present prospect of change.

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