Flashpoints | Security | South Asia

China Muddies Waters Further in Ladakh by Resurrecting Old Claim

With each passing provocative claim, Beijing is making the possibility of a face-saving solution remote for India – and itself.

Abhijnan Rej
China Muddies Waters Further in Ladakh by Resurrecting Old Claim
Credit: Flickr/Indi Tourists

In a further sign, as if you needed one, that the India-China crisis in Ladakh is nowhere near to being resolved, the Chinese foreign ministry on August 29 noted that China “does not recognize the so-called Union Territory of Ladakh.” In a separate statement China also noted that the India-China Line of Actual Control (LAC) is what it proposed on November 7, 1959 – a claim explicitly rejected by India then and since. Together, they suggest that China is in no mood to back down, as Beijing knowingly makes claims that would assuredly irk New Delhi. At the same time, both sides continue diplomatic talks as a matter of liturgy, while the military buildup on the ground shows no sign of letting up.

Soon after India’s decision last year to carve out a separate centrally administered territory, Ladakh, out of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, China registered its concerns. It has done so on a few occasions. On August 6, 2019, the day after India announced its decision, the Chinese foreign ministry noted, as reply to a question posed to its spokesperson, “India has continued to undermine China’s territorial sovereignty by unilaterally changing its domestic law. Such practice is unacceptable and will not come into force,” adding that India should “avoid taking any move that may further complicate the boundary question.” Again in October last year, Beijing reiterated that India’s Ladakh move was “unlawful and void and this is not effective in any way,” and that it “will not change the fact that the area is under Chinese actual control.” (China administers the disputed Aksai Chin, which India claims as part of Ladakh.)

The implication of China’s latest statement about its non-recognition of Ladakh remains opaque. It is, for example, not clear whether China seeks to treat the entirety of Ladakh as disputed – which would be a tremendously escalatory step, rendering the already-tenuous LAC meaningless – or merely set up ground for negotiations about a new status quo around the LAC. Beijing in all likelihood knows that either possibility would be unpalatable for New Delhi. Which brings us to the question of why China would make such an assertion especially when it, simultaneously, repeats the need to “further ease the cooling down” of tensions with India.

This question becomes even more vexing considering China’s recent claim that the LAC is what was suggested by Beijing more than 60 years ago in a letter from Zhou Enlai to Jawaharlal Nehru, in 1959. In fact, the foundational 1993 India-China Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement explicitly notes that the “two sides agree that references to the line of actual control in this Agreement do not prejudice their respective positions on the boundary question” (without spelling out what the “respective positions” were). Since then, both sides had refrained from publicly asserting their perception of the LAC. Instead, they reached a tacit agreement around its location based on patrolling patterns and the other’s perception of where it lies, as former Indian diplomat Shivshankar Menon explains it.

The problem with unilaterally reasserting a claim rejected by the other side in the past, as China has now done, is that that tacit bargain now stands to be broken, the final nail to the coffin of the 1993 agreement.

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All of this, of course, leads to a key question: What is China’s endgame here? While it is true that the People’s Liberation Army’s ingress at several locations in eastern Ladakh has changed facts on the ground, the fait accompli comes at the cost of sustained deployment of troops; any PLA let up here will near-certainly open opportunities for the Indian Army to roll it back. That implies that the PLA (and the Indian Army) will have to be exactly where they are right now all through the harsh winter ahead – an expensive proposition for India, but also China.

Meanwhile, with each extravagant statement Beijing is making a considered face-saving solution difficult for both.