Once again on July 16 and 17, 2013 Chinese troops on horseback intruded into Ladakh. They retreated peacefully after laying claim to territory.
Why is China repeatedly indulging in such brinkmanship?
Various theories have been advanced. It is said the Chinese are worried about an Indian buildup that could monitor the infrastructural installations on their side of the border. It is more likely that China considers this the most suitable time to settle the border issue with India. These pinpricks are intended to prod a weak and ineffectual Indian government to capitulate and sign an agreement suiting Beijing. The present is particularly suiting China for a final settlement not only because the UPA government is on the ropes; there are three other constraints that impel Beijing’s desire for quick settlement.
The first constraint relates of course to Beijing’s longstanding strategic imperative to connect Xingjian to Tibet which can be done only through Ladakh. In 1960 Zhou Enlai had offered trading Arunachal Pradesh, then NEFA, to India for Ladakh ceded to China. Had Nehru negotiated the offer by ceding only the strip joining Xingjian to Tibet, the 1962 conflict might have been avoided. His summary rejection of the offer led to hostilities. Beijing’s present need for the Xingjian-Tibet connection has become much more pressing because of unrest in both provinces.
The second constraint relates to growing rivalry between the US and China and Washington’s entry into Southeast Asia’s strategic zone. Beijing’s worry is accentuated by prospects of closer Indo-US-Japan cooperation in the region. Therefore Beijing would like to cement a relationship that puts India firmly in the Chinese camp which it believes might be achievable given New Delhi’s weak and tottering government.
The third constraint is most crucial. With Pakistan’s election of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the slight softening of attitude among a section of senior Pakistani Generals, and Pakistan’s fatigue over the Kashmir dispute, the prospects of an Indo-Pakistan peace breakthrough appear faintly visible. The starting point for a peace formula was already laid down by former President Musharraf’s offer of soft borders and joint management of Kashmir. If negotiations based upon that formula as a starting point were to proceed and succeed, inevitably it could lead to the establishment of an Indo-Pakistan confederation culminating in the creation of a South Asian Union to cover the entire region.
That eventuality would be a nightmare for the hawks of the People’s Liberation Army and Communist party hardliners. It would create a balance of power in Asia and dent their overweening ambitions for China on the global stage. Therefore it would be top priority for Beijing to achieve an overall settlement with India including agreement over the border before India and Pakistan settle differences. Indo-Pakistan peace would have to be achieved under the aegis of Big Brother China in order to satisfy Beijing’s hegemonic designs. Beijing already has the ruling establishments of Islamabad and Rawalpindi in its pocket. It has already achieved its strategic goals in Pakistan by gaining access through Pakistan Occupied (POK) to Iran. It has already gained access to the Indian Ocean through Gwadar port built by China with its control ceded by Pakistan to Beijing. What remains is to bring India within its fold.
An Indo-Chinese settlement on Ladakh before Indo-Pakistan peace is achieved assumes special significance because of the leverage it would give to Beijing to mediate in the region. No settlement with Beijing is conceivable unless at least the minimal territory needed to connect Xingjian to Tibet is ceded by India to China. If that were done, all three nations would have legitimate and recognized presence in Kashmir. Before that if Indo-Pakistan peace settlement has not been reached, Beijing would have a free hand to mediate between its two underling nations to hammer out an agreement. That is why it is imperative for New Delhi to reach a peace agreement with Islamabad before undertaking any serious negotiation with Beijing.
That is why New Delhi should continue maintaining its cool despite Chinese provocations in Ladakh and instead take the initiative to settle with Pakistan first. To be realistic no settlement with Pakistan is likely unless the vexed dispute over Kashmir is resolved. It is here that the government and indeed all opposition parties need to reappraise the Kashmir dispute without bias or emotion. One need not recall the genesis of this dispute, the assurance given by Prime Minister Nehru when Kashmir first acceded to India, his initiative to seek UN intervention, the failure of successive Indian governments to accept the UN Plebiscite on principle as long as all the preconditions listed for it to be held are met – this has long been iterated to indicate that India’s claim to Kashmir is only marginally better than that of Pakistan. Past events dictate that the only honourable, democratic and credible solution rests with the people of Kashmir who should be given the right of self determination.
Credible opinion polls by Chatham House think tank in Britain carried across undivided Kashmir clearly suggest that the majority in Ladakh and Jammu are firmly with India, while the majority in POK is firmly with Pakistan. But both sides want soft borders and free movement of goods and people without visas across the border. The dispute really is over the Valley. In this region the overwhelming majority around 80 percent want independence. Of the remainder in the Valley more prefer India to Pakistan. Why then is India worried about granting self determination to end this dispute once and for all? Clearly, self determination, which might even favour India if sensible campaigning is conducted, can only be considered in the context of irrevocable commitment to participation in a South Asian Union having joint defence, common market and free movement without visas regardless of the future status of the Valley.
The possibility of an independent Valley as part of a South Asian Union would send shudders through the patriotic hawks across our political spectrum. They need to reflect. For over half a century the Indian people have co-existed with Article 370 in Kashmir. By this Article there has been discrimination between the citizens of Kashmir and those from the rest of India. The rest are denied the right to acquire immovable property, to be recruited in a Government job, to vote in the Assembly and municipal or panchayat elections despite permanent residence in Kashmir, to obtain a bank loan, or even the access to higher education! Only since 1967 did they get the right to vote in parliamentary elections after the jurisdiction of the Election Commission of India was extended to Jammu & Kashmir. Contrast this with all such rights that would be granted to all citizens of all member nations of the proposed South Asian Union. All these rights are granted to citizens of the different nations of the European Union. The same would obtain in the proposed South Asian Union. Why then should Indian politicians be alarmed over self determination to settle the Kashmir problem? The need to act is now because the situation is critical.