So the Chinese have gone back to their side of the “fence”, a fence that they have never acknowledged, but which we, India, have always firmly believed in. As everyone knows, on 15 April, Chinese troops had intruded 19 km into what India has always held to be its territory, and set up camp there. For two weeks, soldiers of the Indian army and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) sat there, at 20,000 feet, glaring at each other. Negotiations happened, the nature of which have not been made public, and finally the Chinese withdrew. Though nothing seems to have been announced officially yet, in return, the Indians apparently agreed to dismantle or evacuate the forward fortifications they had built on the bulge that overlooks the China-Pakistan Karakoram Highway.
Whichever way you look at it, it was a victory for China.
If we believe that this is our territory, why on earth did we agree to pull back?
For the first week or so of the stand-off in the Himalayas, the Indian government seemed to be in denial. The Prime Minister called it a “localized” problem, external affairs minister Salman Khurshid, who was packing his bags for his visit to Beijing, said that it was only a “pimple” on the otherwise perfect complexion of Indo-Chinese relationships. Who were they fooling?
A couple of years ago, I had taken a holiday in a part of India that adjoins China. Through some common friends, I came to know the colonel who headed the Indian military outpost on the border. As has always been my experience, our army men are the best and most gracious hosts in the world. We were given a tour, lunch, drinks, and a sincere invitation to come back any time we wanted. At one point, I found myself alone in a jeep with the colonel, who was driving. He pointed out the heights where Indian soldiers sat at oxygen-defiant altitudes and bone-freezing temperatures, keeping a watch on their Chinese counterparts barely hundreds of metres away. If this was the Pakistan border, he mused, the task would be simple. If there was an act of aggression or incursion, he would know exactly what to do. But this was the Chinese border. As an Indian soldier, he told me, he was quite clear in his mind that if something unpleasant was started off by the other side, he would do what his duty and conscience dictated. But, he said, glancing at me as he manoeuvred the jeep around the snow-bound curves, he was unsure whether he would get any support from his superiors or from the bureaucrats in Delhi.
That is the crux of the problem.
China has been aggressively building roads and airstrips along the Indian border for years now, for rapid deployment of troops. We finally managed to begin laying some roads in 2008 or so, but we have a lot of catching up to do. We have been talking of raising a special mountain corps for years now, but have done nothing about it, other than talk. When it came to a stand-off, we agreed to go back, inside our own territory, so that we could get the Chinese to leave India. All negotiations are about give and take. We certainly gave, but what did we take?
Reports in the media claim that subtle warnings were sent to China that Salman Khurshid would not visit China, and that Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s trip to India later this month would be cancelled. Two points come to mind. One, the truth is that, the Chinese refused to confirm Khurshid’s visit while the stand-off was on. Two, if the Chinese army was unaware of their country’s Prime Minister’s scheduled visit to India, then there is certainly a communication gap—or, more importantly—a mismatch of intent between the PLA and the Chinese civilian government. This is difficult to believe. In 1978, when then external affairs minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited China, his hosts welcomed him by invading Vietnam that same night.
What is very likely is that before the Prime Ministerial visit, China wanted to show India its place in China’s scheme of things. That it has achieved successfully.
This is what happened. The Chinese entered 19 km into Indian territory. We could have done several things. Our soldiers could have circled round them and cut off their supply line. We could have sat behind them and glared at them. We did nothing. In the end, they strolled back into their own territory, and we retreated further back in our own land. Who lost face? Who achieved what they had set out to do? The Chinese wanted to test us, and we failed the test, to their delight—and one has a feeling that the Chinese knew that we would fail.
The brave and patriotic colonel at that border outpost was absolutely right.
When Chinese Premier Li Keqiang gets off his plane at Delhi, he will be strutting down the stairs.