There was deadly combat between troops of China People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and the Indian Army in the Himalayan mountain ranges 14,000 feet above sea level. Both sides did not engage in an exchange of fire. The reason being that an agreement reached by the two disputant nations precluded their respective armies from carrying firearms within two miles on either side of the disputed Line of Actual Control (LAC). Situations like this have become known to be part of the history of the India China war. India announced that Chinese soldiers killed twenty of its troops. The troops of both countries engaged in hand to hand combat using fists, stones and clubs studded with nails on their heads and bodies. In the process, many fell down the slopes of ridges and drowned in icy waters below. India’s casualties included a commanding officer, Colonel B Santosh Babu. The PLA announced later that its forces suffered 43 losses including a commanding officer who also died.
Beijing did not disclose the total number of Chinese dead. News of the deaths momentarily raised a feeling of war hysteria across India, and Prime Minister Nahdran Modi vowed that “the sacrifice of the soldiers will not go in vain. India wants peace, but if antagonised, it can and will give a befitting reply.” On its part, China rolled out some of her modern smart weapons and big guns for simulating military exercises not very far from the scene of combat.
According to Beijing, Indian forces “crossed the line, acted illegally, provoked and attacked the Chinese, resulting in both sides engaging in serious physical conflict and injury and death.” A United Nations spokesperson Eri Kaneko urged the warring parties to exercise “maximum restraint.” He had earlier stated the UN’s position thus: “We are concerned about reports of violence and deaths at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China. We take positive note of reports that the two countries have engaged in de-escalating the situation.”
The McMahon Line
The Line of Actual Control marks the boundary between India and China. China had adopted it after rejecting the McMahon Line negotiated between Tibet, an autonomous Region of China and the British Indian government in 1924. The British Indian government foreign secretary, Henry McMahon had bypassed Chinese representatives and negotiated an unacceptable borderline with Tibet. The government in Beijing promptly denounced and rejected it, and, on its own accord, imposed the Line of Actual Control in defiance of the agreement.
Renewed determination by Chinese authorities to enforce the LAC on their terms provoked immediate land disputes that culminated in the Sino – Indian war. In essence clashes in the region have their roots in centuries-old boundary adjustments involving numerous contending empires including Tibet, China, Russia and Great Britain. The adjustments also resulted in controversies surrounding Kashmir and Jammu to date.
Border disputes over a desolate piece of land, long abandoned by India and described by it’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru as a place where “not even a blade of grass grows,” have been festering. But bloody clashes between the two countries occurred in 1962 and 1975 respectively after India gained independence from Britain in 1947.
INDIA CHINA WAR OF 1962
Perhaps the bloodiest war ever fought between the two countries was the Indian China war of 1962. It is also known as the Indo – China War or Sino – Indian Border Conflict. As noted previously, the conflict was triggered by skirmishes between the armies of both countries resulting from border disputes in the Himalayan mountain ranges, precisely around Aksai Chin. The immediate cause was the 1959 uprising in Tibet resulting in India’s grant of asylum to the Dalai Lama, the Region’s Spiritual Head. In a move considered by India as defensive, New Delhi placed numerous military outposts along its border with China, north of the McMahon Line on the eastern portion of the Line of Actual Control, proclaimed by Prime Minister Chou Enlai of China earlier in that year. Construed as a naked act of aggression from India, China responded with commensurate moves. The “Forward Policy” initiated by India in 1960 to limit Chinese patrols proved another catalyst. India consistently rebuffed diplomatic overtures put forward by China to address the dispute in the three years leading up to 1962. Indian leaders felt insulted by Chou Enlai’s unilateral imposition of the LAC.
China, having exhausted all peaceful efforts to achieve resolution of the dispute, began mobilising troops to strategic places along its 3,225 kilometres (2,000- miles) – long Himalayan border with India. The first flashpoint was Ladakh; second, the rejected MacMahon Line to the east. On October 20, 1962, Chinese forces launched the expected offensive, overrunning Indian troops in Rezang La in Chusul and Tawang in the western and eastern war theatres respectively.
The war raged on for weeks with heavy fighting at high altitudes of nearly 15,000 feet in the rugged Himalayan mountain ranges. Satisfied with her achieved intents, China unilaterally announced a ceasefire after one month of fighting on November 20, 1962; and, at the same time, also announced the withdrawal of her troops to the Line of Actual Control. On November 19, 1962, the guns fell silent along the entire border between the two belligerent nations. Worthy of note is the fact that the war did not involve the use of the Navy and Air Force on both sides.
The ceasefire announcement came at a point when foreign powers began to show interest in the war. Powers involved in the Cold war antics seemingly relegated to the background. Britain and the United States did not hide their support to India but objected to selling advanced weaponry to her. However, the Kennedy administration in the US deployed an aircraft carrier group and ordered it to set sail towards the Indian Ocean. President John F. Kennedy exclaimed, “We should defend India, and therefore, we will defend India.” The hawks in the Pentagon had proposed the use of nuclear bombs on China as a last resort. In the meantime, American planes began moving supplies of war materials to India before the cessation of hostilities. With China’s declaration of ceasefire, Kennedy recalled the aircraft carrier back to base.
On the other hand, cracks had begun to appear in relations between China and the Soviet Union – two leading communist nations – in the years before 1962. India, denied supplies of sophisticated weapons by the West, looked up to the Soviets. Moscow indeed made efforts to sell advanced MIG fighter jets to India in a show of support, before China brought the war to an abrupt end. Casualties in the war were high. China’s war office gave its figures as 722 killed and 1,697 wounded. Indian sources gave 1,383 as it’s war dead with 1,696 classified as missing. The Indian government also showed it’s the number of captured as 3,968 while the wounded ranged between 548 and 1,045. One essential factor that will continue to hinder efforts at achieving guaranteed longstanding peace is that China fought and ended the war on her terms.
Kashmir, Ladakh and Aksai Chin
As with the 1962 war, the recent clash in June 2020, had its focal point on the Aksai Chin Pass where the Chinese had been constructing a road around the mountain ridges. India claims Aksai Chin is part of Ladakh, one of its Provinces in the controversial strategic LAC. China also posits that Aksai Chin is part of it’s Xinjiang Region. Claims to this area with a vital road junction that links Xinjiang and Tibet Regions is non-negotiable to China.
The British had in 1846 engaged and defeated the Sikh Empire in war, resulting in the transfer of Kashmir and Jammu along with Ladakh to Britain. The latter declared full control and suzerainty over the entire western portion of the Sino – Indian border, an area already in dispute following a previous war between Tibet and the Sikh Empire. The British commissioners felt compelled by the complexity of past actions and attendant boundary adjustments in the region to invite Chinese officials to negotiate the disputed borders and accord them fixed status. Officials in Beijing showed no interest. The British commissioners on their own “fixed the southern boundary at Pangong Lake, but regarded the area north of it till the Karakoram Pass as terra incognita.”
The rulers in Kashmir remained conscious of the strategic importance of the trade routes from Ladakh to the Asian hinterland and elsewhere. Aksai Chin’s vital location, it would appear, made it a victim of numerous boundary adjustments in the frequent wars of conquest in the entire region. It severally changed hands between the warring factions depending on which one was victorious in wars of conquest that persisted for over a century. Records have it that the “Peking University Atlas” in 1925 posited Aksai Chin in Indian territory.
Thus at independence in 1947, the Indian government adopted a “Johnson Line” drawn up in the previous century to claim Indian suzerainty over Aksai Chin as part of her Ladakh Region for several centuries past and emphasising that the border around that point was not negotiable. However, by some accounts including, in particular, George N. Patterson the evidence to that claim presented by the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru in 1954 was weak and traceable to “some very dubious sources indeed.” China constructed a road through Aksai Chin in 1956. From available records, the area is more easily accessible to China than India which occupies a portion with higher mountain ranges.
Indeed on May 5, 2020, the first standoff between the two armies occurred at the beach of the disputed Pangong Lake, shared between Tibet in China and Ladakh Province in India, on the Line of Actual Control. Other clashes were at different locations in eastern Ladakh. In late May Chinese forces objected to Indian road construction along the Galwan River Valley. The conflict of June 15, did not put an end to the fray resulting in the deaths and injuries stated earlier. India admitted taking 10 Chinese soldiers captives and subsequently released them. The PLA did not mention any prisoners taken by them. Later, the Chinese Foreign Ministry and the Indian Army denied that China did not take its soldiers as prisoners. News also filtered out that disengagement of forces had taken place at Galwan, Gogra and Hot Springs. The Indian media also released information of incomplete disengagement at Pangong.
By the end of August and early September, 2020 Indian troops occupied several heights on the LAC, overlooking Chinese troop positions in the Spangur Region. Shots were fired on September 7, along the LAC for the first time in 45 years. Both sides took the blame for the incident according to Indian media, reporting that warning shots had been fired at the PLA forces by Indian troops. Still, in September, India sent a further 12,000 additional workers to the LAC, to assist in completing construction work of Indian infrastructure along the Sino – Indian border. Surprisingly, amid rising tensions along the border, trade between the two neighbouring countries has not diminished.
No First Use Policy
New Delhi’s revocation of the “SPECIAL STATUS OF JAMMU AND KASHMIR in August 2019 is attributed to be the cause of recent clashes. And, with tension still festering, diplomatic and military talks are ongoing between the two nuclear-armed nations to resolve the crisis. The two Asian giants, each with a population exceeding the one billion mark, have reached a mutual agreement of “no first use” policy. Both have vowed to resort to using nuclear weapons only as a retaliatory measure if attacked by the other adversary.
That significantly reduces the risk of a nuclear war between the two. However, both nations have continued to update their arsenals of conventional weapons in the troubled region. The Chinese Air Force has built new airbases and strengthened its air defenses for combat coupled with the deployment of newly built J-10 and J-11 fighter jets and several ground-attack aircraft. On the other hand, India believed to be more experienced in mountainous terrain warfare has it’s Air Force equipped with French-built Dassault Mirage 2000 and Russian Su – 30 fighters along with several hundred ground attack aircraft.
The two adversaries have in the recent past been forging military alliances with other powers. India engaged in extensive military exercises with the US, Australia and other Western forces in the Pacific Ocean in recent times. China, too, has forged strong military relations with Pakistan – New Delhi’s other principal adversary on the Asian continent. Permanent peace will remain elusive along the Sino -Indian border unless the UN decisively enforces its own demilitarised zone.