Recent reports suggest that India and China have registered a positive evaluation of military and diplomatic consultations to negotiate a denouement to their five-month-old border standoff in Ladakh.
On September 29, The Hindustan Times, a leading Indian daily, carried an exclusive statement made by the Chinese Foreign Ministry to its correspondent in Beijing saying that China’s stance on the boundary dispute with India still corresponds to what was stated in a November 7, 1959 letter by China’s then-Premier Chou En Lai addressed to his Indian counterpart Jawaharlal Nehru.
In that historic document, Chou had proposed that “the armed forces of China and India each withdraw 20 kilometers at once from the so-called McMahon Line in the east (separating the present Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh from China’s Tibet), and from the line up to which each side exercises actual control in the west.”
The letter also said “…that the two sides undertake to refrain from again sending their armed personnel to be stationed in and patrol the zones from which they have evacuated their armed forces, but still maintain civil administrative personnel and unarmed police there for the performance of administrative duties and maintenance of order.”
Chou’s letter further underscored that “neither side should send its armed personnel to Longju (on the MacMahon Line, where in August 1959 the Chinese army took an Indian patrol prisoner), to the entire border between China and India” and moreover included a proposal to separate the troops of the two sides by as great a distance as 40 kilometers.
If there is any need to increase this distance, the Chinese government would be willing to take it into consideration … the Chinese government is willing to do its utmost to create the most peaceful and most secure border zones between our two countries, so that our two countries will never again have apprehensions or come to a clash on account of border issues.”
Subsequently, during a controversial visit to Delhi in April 1960, Chou reiterated the above proposition during his conversations with Nehru. But it didn’t fly, as Nehru rejected the offer. The fateful border war of 1962 followed two year after.
Much water has flowed down the Ganges River over the past six decades. China has emerged as a superpower on the world stage with a comprehensive national power manifold. India’s narratives have all but estimated that Beijing was no longer interested in Chou’s conciliatory formula.
It therefore has come as a certain surprise to hear Beijing unequivocally affirming that it still goes by the 1959 LAC. Interestingly, The Hindustan Times also separately cited remarks made by Wang Dehua, a Chinese veteran specialist at the Shanghai Municipal Centre for International Studies and a familiar voice for the Delhi establishment.
“The western sector (of the border) was drawn by (British) Indian surveyor Johnson, who privately assigned more than 30,000 square kilometers of land in the Aksai Chin region of China to British India,” Wang said.
“This is the historical origin of the territorial dispute between China and India in the western section. China hopes India will give more concessions in the western sector (in Ladakh) while Beijing could give more concessions (to India) in the eastern sector (on MacMahon Line,” he added.
Wang’s views can be taken as semi-official, and in this case his statement supplements the Foreign Ministry statement cited by the newspaper.
In principle, the Indian stance continues to reject China’s LAC of 1959. Unsurprisingly, Delhi responded to the Hindustan Times report in real-time saying, “India has never accepted the so-called unilaterally defined 1959 Line of Actual Control. This position has been consistent and well known, including to the Chinese side.”
Interestingly, the Indian statement went on to recall that the two countries have “have committed to clarification and confirmation of the LAC to reach a common understanding of the alignment of the LAC” but that the exercise stalled “as the Chinese side did not show a willingness to pursue it.”
The Indian statement also noted that “In the last few months, the Chinese side has repeatedly affirmed that the current situation in the border areas (in Ladakh) should be resolved in accordance with the agreements signed between the two countries.”
The Indian response was conspicuously restrained and impeccably factual, but also signalled a willingness to negotiate with China.
These sensitive exchanges took place within the week of a meeting of the two sides’ senior commanders of on September 21, which itself was held in the background of a meeting of their defense ministers in Moscow on September 4 and another meeting of their foreign ministers on September 10.
The diplomats reached an agreement that the two countries should continue the dialogue and quickly and comprehensively disengage in all friction areas. This was also recorded in a joint statement signifying a certain convergence of views.
The senior commanders meeting of September 24 was also distinctive for two reasons: one, a senior Indian diplomat had joined the army delegation at the talks, and, two, for the first time after the border meetings began in June a joint press release was issued on its outcome.
Importantly, India’s Foreign Ministry gave a positive assessment of the commanders meeting, saying among other things that “disengagement is a complex process” that “would require mutually agreed reciprocal actions … It is at the same time also necessary to ensure stability on the ground.”
It went on to say the senior commanders’ meeting presented an “opportunity to have candid and in-depth exchanges of views on stabilizing the situation along the LAC.”
An Indian spokesman later said the two sides agreed to “strengthen the ground communication to avoid any further misunderstandings and misjudgments, stop sending more troops to the frontline, refrain from unilaterally changing the situation on the ground, and avoid taking any actions that may complicate the situation.”
All these developments and statements suggest an inflection point in the India-China standoff in Ladakh and possibly in the wider boundary dispute itself, which, of course, has defined bilateral relations for the past six decades.
The next senior commanders’ meeting is scheduled for October 12 and is invested with high interest. How Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi navigates the path ahead will define his legacy as a statesman. There are opportunities ahead, but also formidable challenges to overcome.