Ladakh Face-off: What Lessons Does The History Hold For India?

China is a sleeping giant. Let her sleep, for when she wakes she will move the world. - Napoleon Bonaparte.

Napoleon was right then and is right after 200 years. To understand the current crisis, it is critical to view it in the context of history.

India did not learn its lesson in 1962 and was condemned to repeat the same mistake in 2020. Aksai Chin was the battleground then and now. Draped in snow with temperatures below freezing levels, the area is part of greater Kashmir. Ladakh is part of it and is claimed both by China and India because of its strategic location.

The Line of Actual Control (LAC) is a loosely defined border that emerged out of the 1962 war in which India inflicted significant casualties on itself and suffered domestic and international humiliation. Prior to the escalation of tensions, Indian provocations were alarming. China accused India of undermining its rule in Tibet. India, encouraged by the West as some independent analysts believed, charged China with suppressing Tibetan autonomy. While China emerged victorious, it strongly believes even to this day that India played in the hands of the US which views supporting India as a way to counterbalance China’s growing power.

Distrust was further heightened by India’s grant of asylum to the Dalai Lama in 1959 after the uprising in Tibet. India also kept a policy of patrolling the disputed Ladakh area despite multiple Chinese warnings and protests. China tried to resolve the outstanding issues through peaceful negotiations, but India rejected its efforts. Instead, India continued fishing expeditions in Aksai Chin which is a critical link between Tibet and Xinjiang. China finally invaded the disputed territory across the McMahon Line, named after the British administrator who proposed it in 1914, and captured the massive area. In step with traditional Chinese wisdom, it soon pulled back into its claimed territory behind the LAC and declared a unilateral ceasefire.

Prime Minister Nehru called out to the Western countries for help. He was heartbroken and took this gigantic defeat to his ashes in 1964. The US and most of the western countries including the Soviet Union sided with India and deemed China the aggressor. However, other voices, though muted, were raised as well. For example, James Colvin from the US Marine Corps blamed India for its provocation towards China. Colvin believed the Chinese showed a “pattern of conservative aims and limited objectives, rather than expansionism.”

While the world, by and large, bought the Indian version of the war and blasted China with the expansionist and aggressor labels, contrarian minority views were voiced by some independent writers and scholars.

President Ayub Khan did a great service to Pakistan’s national security when he settled Pakistan-China border issues and ceded territory to China in 1963. Khan went a step further according to a highly regarded British journalist, Irfan Husain, and turned down the suggestion by the Chinese Ambassador to take advantage of the situation and capture Kashmir when the Indian chips were down.

In order to fully grasp the genesis of the current developments in Aksai Chin, revisiting what happened in 1962 offers much better perspective. After decades of episodic border skirmishes, threats of surgical strikes in Pakistan, and general ebbs and flows in hostilities, Modi’s India directed its war machines where Waterloo was written on the wall. Possibly, Prime Minister Nehru was misguided and got ensnared into the unintentional fallout of a wrong decision. But Prime Minister Modi’s misadventure is just an action replay. For Sino-India watchers, it is still an enigma why anyone would fight for an area which according to Maxwell is “no man’s land where nothing grows and no one lives.”

Aidan Milliff, an expert on South Asian studies at MIT, is perplexed when he says “it is not clear to me whether these disputes start as carefully calculated provocations or as missteps and misunderstandings.” Miliff, however, concedes that China’s recent advances are a response to India’s structure building in the areas strategically sensitive and a possible future flash-point.

The constitutional amendments last year changing the special status of Jammu and Kashmir including Ladakh was seen by China as a direct threat. According to Harsh V. Pant, a professor of international relations at King’s College London, “these changes caused worries in China because the area connects China to Pakistan.”

A month long Doklam standoff in 2017, construction of a huge network of roads parallel to the Line of Actual Control, building of Daulat Beg Oldi airport — the world’s highest airfield—all combined were irritants enough to justify a Chinese response.

New Delhi’s justification for infrastructure building was seen in Beijing as a direct threat to its geo-strategic goals particularly the Belt & Road (B & R) plans aimed at global outreach in trade and development.

The Indian moves are also viewed by both Islamabad and Beijing as a direct threat to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which stands frozen, and where China has invested more than $60 billion. CPEC is the flagship program of B&R and a linchpin for all the future developments in the area and beyond.

All said and done, Beijing is unstoppable. It will continue to forge ahead with the belt and road initiative (B&R), the epicentre of its global development strategy adopted in 2013 that involves several countries. The present gridlock will melt away but would leave behind scars. China would not allow further escalation for multiple tactical as well as strategic reasons. It would not, at any cost, let the US-India alliance - which is part of America’s Indo-Pacific broader strategy - grow and fester.

Secondly, India is not the primary focus of its foreign policy. Given its size and economic prowess, India’s aspirations to be recognised as a regional policeman may have certain justification. China, on the other hand, keeps its sights higher than the Himalayas with a much deeper strategy for global outreach on its chessboard.