The outcome of the 20th Chinese Communist Party Congress that began this Sunday is expected to witness Xi Jinping emerge again as the most powerful man in China and become the General Secretary once again, thereby continuing his marathon run as the President of China.
Let us not forget the timing when such a drastic change is taking place in Beijing. This is probably one of the biggest changes that China will be witnessing in terms of political powerplay since 1949 when CCP became the ruling dispensation there. And this is happening when the West is deeply engaged with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation” mounted on Ukraine that has induced the US to mobilise the NATO much to the discontent of Europe, which is now caught between a rock and a hard place for the past eight months.
This unprecedented move in China, once officially announced, will not only pose the biggest challenge to the West, particularly for the US at a time when Washington is deeply engaged in the Russia-Ukraine War mobilising full NATO support for Kyiv, but this is also going to define the relationship that Beijing will have with New Delhi in the coming decades.
While India, a democracy, will continue to see a change in leadership, Xi will remain to be the Chinese President for almost the rest of his life. The Line of Actual Control (LAC) is poised to become much too blurred.
Xi’s Supreme Moment
When Xi had first taken over the CCPC, he gave a lecture, advocating to promote Socialist rule of law and said that “first we must uphold the leadership of CCPC.” Today, his party system and his entrenchment into the helm of power structure defines his words.
Xi, who is increasingly getting closer to Russian President Vladimir Putin, wants to assert himself as the most powerful man heading a communist regime while positioning China as the ‘Asian Superpower’, widening its sphere of influence in the region while boxing the US in and around the Pacific, but not Indo-Pacific.
After the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) at Astana in 2017 where Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a pull-aside meeting with Xi, New Delhi suffered a setback in the form of a bitter standoff in Doklam, a tri-junction area between India, China and Bhutan that went on for three months from June to August. Once that was mitigated, a so-called informal summit was organised which was held in the Chinese town Wuhan in 2018 April where both the leaders were believed to have reached an understanding on the boundary question, albeit unofficially.
The Wuhan Spirit gave way to the second informal summit that took place in October 2019 in Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu, even as the Indian Army carried out the exercise Him-Vijay in Arunachal Pradesh as part of the routine familiarisation and orientation process while Beijing fumed.
Tensions were already high between Beijing and New Delhi during the second informal summit as it took place a couple of months after the Modi government amended the Indian constitution and scrapped Articles 370 and 35 (A) in J&K and reorganised the region as Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh as two Union territories. The atmosphere was tense and hence not much came out from the meeting in Tamil Nadu between the two heads of the states. What culminated next was a massive military standoff in the eastern sector of the LAC in Ladakh in April-May 2020 that began at the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic while the whole world was brutally locked down to contain the pandemic.
The dream that Xi is to envisage is what Mao asserted in 1949 when Peking (currently Beijing) grabbed the power from Chiang Kai Shiek’s nationalist Republic of Formosa (currently Taiwan). With the seizing of power, Mao disbanded all the ambassadors as ordinary foreigners and threw the bait for a proper recognition of Communist China (PRC) while cutting all ties with the KMT based out of Taiwan.
India, being at such crossroads, had all its people at the mission in Beijing, headed by K M Panikar, with no diplomatic immunity. What Mao bragged along with it was that it was the only big Asian power which defeated the Japanese imperialism while not recognising India’s role in decolonisation and the anti-Japanese stands.
The reason India was at worry was because there was an intelligence that the Tibet region would be taken over by the PRC which they did militarily in 1950. The line which divided Tibet with India was drawn by a British officer Henry McMahon who got Dalai Lama’s plenipotentiary, Lonchen Shastra and KMT diplomat Ivan Chen to British India’s summer capital in India, Simla, to convene a tripartite which said that Tibet would be ruled by Dalai Lama but the suzerainty would remain with China. But some news floated that Ivan Chen was kept in other room while the agreement was drafted to be signed in the Viceregal lodge in Simla. British had attempted to make Tibet as a buffer state that would be led by Dalai Lama, who was militarily weak and only engaged in mystical Buddhism.
Mao ordered a military mobilization into Tibet in 1950, declaring it as the liberation of Tibet. The Chinese Red Army was then at the doorsteps of India but PM Nehru was confident that China wouldn’t attack India unless provoked. The problem emerged soon from Ladakh in the north to Arunachal Pradesh (the NEFA) with the McMahon Line that the British had drawn for their convenience. The last KMT ambassador in New Delhi in 1947 had already conveyed the message that Nationalist China did not consider McMahon line a legal border. Negotiations were the only solution now.
In 1951, Chinese Premier Chou En Lai informed Indian Ambassador Dr Panikkar to have an early meeting on the issue of McMahon Line as it had commercial interests of trade along the Himalayas for hundreds of years as part of the mini silk route. Over the years to come, Nehru along with G S Bajpai (former Secretary General of MEA) thought that McMahon Line was not in the interest of India. All problems started from here as the line was a hurdle to China’s expansionist policy. China soon claimed the NEFA and parts of Ladakh as their own.
Meanwhile, in the farthest lands of Kashmir’s Aksai Chin, China moved their machines to build a road to connect their Xinjiang province. B N Mullick, then the IB chief, revealed in his book ‘Years With Nehru’ that the Chinese wouldn’t discuss any geography on the west of Karakoram which was the part of Kashmir with India and instead would talk to Pakistan.
In the east of Karakoram, the Chinese maintained the Karakoram as the watershed while picking up any hill feature as the point to join Pangong Tso to Chumar via Demchok. This was wrong as each hill feature on the Karakoram pass woul have different contours drawn hundreds of miles away dividing the huge lands of Ladakh creating confusion. It was not the territory but the alignment that confused India as 16,000 sq miles kept uninhabited as the regions ranged from Eastern Xinjiang to Northern Ladakh. Trade routes via Karakoram via Shyok to Leh then Hajilangar to Amotgar lake-Aksai Chin and Hajilangar to Leh were important places while lands in-between Pangong and Lanak-la were green pastures where Phorbang people moved with cattle in the summers for grazing. The areas used by traders and nomads were to be defined and had to have border protocols.
Keeping the talks going, Nehru visited Beijing in 1956 and met Chou En Lai and, together, they coined the slogan ‘Hindi-Chini bhai bhai’. Three years later, however, in March 1959, Dalai Lama fled to India via NEFA (later Arunachal Pradesh) along with thousands of people while in early August, at the Longchu, Chinese PLA killed two Indian personnel from Assam Rifles and also took some prisoners. Already by 1958, the highway from Aksai Chin to Xinjiang was completed which is now called G219. This was the gathering of the storm and Jawaharlal Nehru came under heavy criticism in the Parliament. With the elections scheduled in 1962, the tension inside the Lok Sabha was high.
From Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai, the tempers were now rising and Nehru in a note to Beijing mentioned about Aksai Chin being part of the Indian territory, though, he knew it was long gone with a road now constructed. Nehru had once even said that Aksai Chin was a place where no vegetation would grow, so the usage of the barren land was of no use. Heavily criticised, the parliamentarian compared his bald head with Aksai Chin as a metaphor.
Then came the jolt in 1962 as China attacked India along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). India was unprepared and many Indian soldiers were killed or taken prisoners. It was a major embarrassment to Nehru who couldn’t fathom the fact that China could attack and that too at such a scale. With military preparedness not up to the mark at the LAC, a lack of ammunition and ordnance support was seen as few reasons for the loss along with weak intelligence provided to Nehru by his advisors.
Similar attacks in 1967 at Nathula was answered equally by the Indian Army which stunned the Chinese. Even in 1965 during the India-Pakistan war, the PLA was seen to intrude again in Longchu in Arunachal which can be assumed as support to Pakistan as they were and remain all-weather friends.
With the all-powerful Xi at the helm again, in all likelihood for life, not much between India and China is likely to change on geopolitical front.
Shome Basu is a New Delhi-based senior journalist.