China broke decades-long peace under PM Modi’s watch, writes P Chidambaram

The relations between the two countries have changed dramatically in a matter of months. At the Wuhan Summit on April 28, 2018, the joint statement devoted only one paragraph to the border question.

China broke decades-long peace under PM Modi’s watch, writes P Chidambaram
In this photo provided by the Press Information Bureau, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi interacts with soldiers during a visit to the Ladakh area, India, Friday, July 3, 2020. Modi made an unannounced visit Friday to a military base in remote Ladakh region bordering China where the soldiers of the two countries have been facing off for nearly two months. Modi’s visit comes in the backdrop of massive Indian army build-up in Ladakh region following hand-to-hand combat between Indian and Chinese soldiers on June 15 that left 20 Indian soldiers dead and dozens injured, the worst military confrontation in over four decades between the Asian giants. (Press Information Bureau via AP)

In August 1959, Chinese troops attacked an Indian garrison at Longju in the eastern sector of the India-China border. The warning bell had been sounded. On September 8, 1962, Chinese troops intruded into Indian territory. Shortly afterwards, on October 20, there was an invasion by Chinese troops. China made a self-serving three-point proposal on October 24 that was rejected by India. On November 14, Chinese troops launched a massive invasion and penetrated nearly 100 miles into Indian territory. On November 21, China announced a unilateral ceasefire and withdrawal. In the eastern sector, the Chinese said they were “prepared to withdraw from their present positions to the north of the line of actual control, that is, north of the illegal McMohan line, and to withdraw 20 kilometres farther back from that line”. Since 1962, the Chinese are holding on to the positions to which they had unilaterally withdrawn, thus vacating, by and large, the intrusions of 1962 in the eastern sector.

India lost the 1962 war but remained defiant. There was a line of control sought to be drawn by China on which the perceptions of the two sides were different. In 1993, the line of control, or whatever it was, was agreed to be the Line of Actual Control, but the perceptions of the two sides about the LAC were different. Since 1975, there was no shooting on the India-China border and no loss of lives. It was no mean achievement to maintain a tenuous peace along a 4,506-km border for 45 years. That peace was broken by China, and 20 Indian soldiers were killed, under the watch of Mr Narendra Modi.

China was aggressor

Throughout this period, and even when China agreed on the LAC (though perceptions differed), China had made no claim over the Galwan Valley in Ladakh. A letter written by Jawaharlal Nehru to Zhou Enlai (then prime minister of China) on January 1, 1963, captured the situation on the ground:

“3. In the course of the past 7 or 8 years, I have personally visited various parts of Ladakh on several occasions. During my earlier visits, there was no sign of Chinese forces there, nor was there any report about their coming into Ladakh. On later occasions, there were reports of their having entered Ladakh in various places…..I can speak of this from my personal knowledge. You will not expect me to accept vague allegations of Chinese occupation of a greater part of eastern Ladakh when this goes against the evidence of my own eyes……..”
“8…….At no time before the 8th September 1962, ever since India became independent, did the Chinese cross the border of the Eastern Sector except at Longju…..”

Under Mr Modi’s watch

In his letters to Zhou, Nehru minced no words. He unambiguously called China the “aggressor”. This was after India had lost the war and China tried to impose Victor’s justice. It is into that Galwan Valley, over which hitherto China made no claim of sovereignty, and at Pangong Tso and Hot Springs, that Chinese troops intruded in March-April 2020. India detected the intrusion and challenged the troops on May 5. The face-off deteriorated into a bloody clash on June 15-16. This also happened under the watch of Mr Narendra Modi.

Yet, inexplicably, the Prime Minister will not name China as the aggressor. Is the MEA happy with this unprecedented ambiguity? Are the serving generals and the fighting jawans pleased with the Prime Minister’s deliberate reticence?

Restoration of status quo ante

The relations between the two countries have changed dramatically in a matter of months. At the Wuhan Summit on April 28, 2018, the joint statement devoted only one paragraph to the border question. It contained the usual phrases such as “maintaining peace and tranquillity”, “confidence building measures”, etc. At the Mahabalipuram Summit on October 12, 2019, the pro forma reference to the border was pushed down to paragraph 16 of the 17-paragraph statement. On the other hand, the two leaders “decided to designate 2020 as Year of India-China Cultural and People to People Exchanges”. Mr Modi must have loved the idea of a grand spectacle!

As recently as on December 21, 2019, the statement after the 22nd meeting of the Special Representatives repeated the usual phrases. It is now clear that the PLA was in an advanced stage of planning of the incursions three months later. Mr Xi Jinping seems to have accurately assessed India’s weakened position as a result of the rapidly sliding economy. Mr Modi seems to have totally failed to read Mr Xi’s intentions. The fallout for India is a diplomatic disaster, a military setback (at least temporarily) and a complete wipe-out of the gains since 1993. The lesson is, leave diplomacy to diplomats. They may be ponderous and slow, but they will pick up signals which novices will fail to detect.

After the NSAs talked to each other on July 5, both sides said that disengagement and de-escalation have begun. I welcome it, but there is some distance to go before the government can reach its declared goal of ‘status quo ante as on May 5, 2020’. The people will closely watch the process and the progress and hold the Modi government accountable to achieve that goal. Meanwhile, an ignominious end, even before it began, to ‘2020 as the Year of India-China…….’.

Twitter: @Pchidambaram_IN

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First published on: 12-07-2020 at 06:45 IST