China has said it abides by the Line of Actual Control (LAC) as proposed by Premier Zhou Enlai to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in a letter dated November 7, 1959 — the first time in decades that it has clearly spelled out its stand on the notional Sino-India boundary by reiterating a position that New Delhi has consistently rejected since it was first made 61 years ago.
Beijing’s position, in an exclusive statement to HT amid the ongoing border friction in eastern Ladakh, is a reiteration of the long-existing differences on the boundary question and a sign that the ongoing military standoff is unlikely to be resolved soon.
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In the statement in Mandarin, the Chinese foreign ministry, while blaming the Indian Army for the ongoing tension since May and for the June 15 clash in eastern Ladakh’s Galwan valley, said the clash was an “unfortunate” event.
“Firstly, China-India border LAC is very clear, that is the LAC on November 7, 1959. China announced it in the 1950s, and the international community including India are also clear about it,” the ministry said on Friday.
“However, ever since this year, the Indian Army has continued to arrive and illegally cross the border, unilaterally expanding the scope of actual control. This is the source of tension on the border issues. The key to disengagement between the two armies is India’s withdrawal of all illegal cross-border personnel and equipment,” it added.
It’s the first time in recent years that Beijing has said in unequivocal terms that it still goes by the 1959 LAC. It did, however, make a passing reference during the 2017 Doklam crisis, when the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying spoke of the “1959 LAC” while blaming Indian troops for a scuffle with Chinese soldiers near Pangong lake in Ladakh in August that year.
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India has repeatedly and consistently rejected China’s allegations that Indian troops crossed over to the Chinese side of the LAC in eastern Ladakh, asserting that New Delhi has always taken a responsible approach towards border management and maintaining peace and tranquillity in the border areas.
The Indian ministry of external affairs did not respond to requests for a comment on the fresh Chinese statement.
The November 7, 1959 date mentioned in the Beijing statement was in reference to a letter written by Zhou to Nehru – the two leaders under whom the two countries experienced the best and the worst of bilateral diplomatic ties. “In order to maintain effectively the status quo of the border between the two countries, to ensure the tranquillity of the border regions and to create a favourable atmosphere for a friendly settlement of the boundary question, the Chinese government proposes that the armed forces of China and India each withdraw 20km at once from the so-called McMahon Line in the east, and from the line up to which each side exercises actual control in the west,” Zhou wrote.
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A year later, during his high-profile visit to New Delhi in 1960, Zhou had used the phrase “LAC” during a press conference. “There exists between the two counties a line of actual control up to which each side exercises administrative jurisdiction,” he said as part of a six-point proposal to maintain peace at the border.
Zhou went on to say that both sides should keep to the “…line of actual control and should not put forward territorial claims as pre-conditions, but individual adjustments may be made”.
In 1962, when India and China fought a war between October and November, Nehru rejected the definition. “There is no sense or meaning in the Chinese offer to withdraw twenty kilometers from what they call ‘line of actual control,” he said. The Chinese Premier responded to Nehru, defining the LAC – again as per November 7, 1959.
The LAC was “basically still the line of actual control as existed between the Chinese and Indian sides on 7 November 1959: To put it concretely, in the eastern sector it coincides in the main with the so- called McMahon Line, and in the western and middle sectors it coincides in the main with the traditional customary line which has consistently been pointed out by China”, Zhou said in reply to Nehru.
The phrase LAC was used in the 1993 Sino-India “Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and tranquillity along the LAC in the India-China Border Areas.” At New Delhi’s insistence the expression wasn’t qualified in terms of whether it was the 1959 one.
Former Indian ambassador to China, Gautam Bambawale said the “…significance (of the statement) is that they are telling India that the LAC is the line of November 7, 1959, as explained by Zhou Enlai to Nehru in his letter. That’s it. They are going by that.” Bambawale added: “We have never accepted it. There were several pockets of disagreements and the largest number of pockets (of disagreements) were in Ladakh. Obviously, we did not accept the offer.” He added that New Delhi has conveyed this to Beijing in “no uncertain terms”.
A leading China-hand, Bambawale had also served as ambassador in Bhutan, the only other country, other than India, with which Beijing has a land-territorial dispute.
Bambawale said following the Chinese understanding of the LAC, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is attempting to hold on to the ground positions right up to it as per the 1959 LAC.
It is clear that the current aggression at the border shown by the Chinese since May is to attempt to control territories up to where Beijing defines its LAC.
Officials in diplomatic circles, who asked not to be named, told HT that India had pointed out its disagreements with the 1959 LAC even during meetings of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination (WMCC) on India-China Border Affairs established in 2012 as a mechanism to consult and coordinate the management of India-China border areas.
Little is known about the differences in perceptions on the LAC in the western sector, the most troublesome. Maps have only been exchanged for the middle sector until now.
One of the officials above told HT that the LAC clarification process for the western sector broke down “an hour into the meeting” in 2002. Since then, the entire process – which was then an Expert Group headed by a director general in MEA and deputy director general in the Chinese foreign ministry — has been stalled. “The western section was drawn by Indian surveyor (WH) Johnson, who privately assigned more than 30,000 square kilometres of land in the Aksai Chin region of China to British India. This is the historical origin of the territorial dispute between China and India in the western section,” Wang Dehua, a South Asia expert at Shanghai Municipal Centre for International Studies, said.
“China hopes India will give more concessions in the western sector while Beijing could give more concessions (to India) in the eastern sector,” Wang added.
The Chinese foreign ministry statement blamed New Delhi for the tension, saying: “…the right and wrong of the Galwan Valley conflict is very clear. We didn’t want to see what had happened. We hope the media doesn’t hype this unfortunate event”. The ministry did not respond to the question on the number casualties that PLA suffered during the brutal hand-to-hand clash with Indian army soldiers on June 15.
The ministry’s statement referred to the recent foreign ministers’ and military talks held between India and China.
“Since the bilateral meeting between the foreign ministers of China and India in Moscow on September 10, the two sides have actively engaged in dialogue and consultation based on the five-point declaration,” it said.
Referring to commander-level talks, it said “constructive measures to stabilise the border situation were taken. We hope the two sides walk in the same direction and push the frontline troops to disengage as soon as possible”. Asked to comment on reports arguing Beijing is escalating tension with neighbours to divert attention from a badly hit economy, the ministry said though hit by the pandemic, the economy is reviving.
“Due to Covid-19, China’s economy has been affected but it has regained growth and has contributed to the recovery of the global economy, the statement added.
On relations with neighbours, the ministry said: “The relationship between China and its neighbouring countries is generally good. China has always insisted on resolving differences between neighbouring countries through friendly consultations.”
Sameer Patil, a fellow for international security studies at Gateway House, said the statement indicated that China was clearly adopting a maximalist position that disregarded all the developments that have taken place since 1959, including the bilateral boundary talks, mechanisms and agreements on peace and tranquillity on the LAC.
“When the Special Representatives mechanism was set up, this wasn’t their position. Even though this matter [China’s stance on the LAC of 1959] may have been known, it was not reiterated when important bilateral mechanisms and arrangements for handling the border dispute were set up,” he said.
“This reflects China’s obdurate attitude towards the border dispute. Reiterating this maximalist position amid the five-month-long standoff shows China has no intention of going in for an early solution to the problem,” Patil added.
(With inputs from Rezaul H Laskar)
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