China must come clean on whether it considers Ladakh a 'disputed territory'

Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi must know that it is in Beijing's interest to normalise relations.

 |  5-minute read |   13-08-2016
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As Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi arrives in Delhi for his second visit to India, it is interesting to recall one of the most unknown episodes of the history of modern India.

Let's recall the negotiations which, in 1953-54, preceded the signature on the "Agreement on Trade and Intercourse between Tibet Region of China and India", known as the Panchsheel Agreement for its lofty preamble.

Negotiations

The negotiations ended with India giving away all its rights in Tibet (telegraph lines, post offices, dak bungalows, military escort in Gyantse and Yatung, etc), while getting no assurance on the border demarcation from the Chinese government.

The talks were held in Beijing among Zhang Hanfu, China’s vice- minister of foreign affairs, N Raghavan, the Indian ambassador to China, and TN Kaul, his chargé d’affaires. It lasted from December 1953 till April 1954.

Why so long? One reason appears in a cable sent by Raghavan to Delhi in which he informs the foreign secretary that Zhang was "virulently objecting to inclusion of Tashigong in Agreement."

Also read: Secure Ladakh before China teaches us another lesson

For centuries, the trade and pilgrimage route for the Kailash-Manasarovar region (and then onward to Lhasa) followed the course of the Indus, passed Demchok, the last Ladakhi village, and then crossed the border to reach the first Tibetan hamlet, Tashigong, some 15 miles inside Tibet.

Not only did Zhang refuse to mention Demchok in the agreement, but also bargained for nearly five months to not cite Tashigong.

Retrospectively, one can find two main reasons for the Chinese dragging their feet.

kailash_081316110105.jpg China today continues to adamantly refuse to reopen the Demchok-Tashigong route to the abode of Lord Shiva.

One was the proximity of the National Highway 219, later known as the "Aksai Chin Road", cutting across the Indian territory in northern Ladakh. Though China had started constructing the highway, Delhi was to discover its existence only four years later.

In 1954, Indian border forces visiting Demchok could have noticed what was clandestinely being built; though the road was not within firing range for the Indian artillery, Beijing did not want to take a risk.

It did not occur to the Indian negotiators that something momentous was happening on the other side of the range.

The second reason is also grave and presently very relevant. After months of infructuous exchanges, Zhang Hanfu conceded that "traders customarily using this route might continue such use but an oral understanding to that effect between two delegations would suffice, (China) would not like in writing, even by implication, to have any reference to Ladakh."

But why to not name this ancient route in the agreement, as it was done for the passes elsewhere? The answer is that China considered Ladakh a "disputed area".

Kaul told Delhi: "We have taken (the) position that Ladakh is Indian territory and route should be mentioned as its omission would be invidious."

Also read: Modi and Jinping shouldn't let their egos come in the way of India-China ties

But China did not accept the Indian contention and "after considerable argument (Zhang) agreed, but subsequently withdrew (his agreement). (He) suggests we would consider exchange of letters which will not form part of Agreement..."

Bargaining continued.

India had to finally concur to the Chinese formulation.

Demchok was mentioned nowhere, but article IV of the agreement says: "Traders and pilgrims of both countries may travel by the following passes and route: (1) Shipki La pass, (2) Mana pass, (3) Niti pass, (4) Kungri Bingri pass, (5) Darma pass, and (6) Lipu Lekh pass. … Also, the customary route leading to Tashigong along the valley of the Indus river may continue to be traversed in accordance with custom."

History

You may think that it is past history, but it is not. China today continues to adamantly refuse to reopen the Demchok-Tashigong route to the abode of Lord Shiva, while insisting on a long and tortuous route via Nathu-la in Sikkim.

External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj should definitely raise this question with her Chinese counterpart when they meet.

The people of Ladakh have for years asked for the reopening of the ancient route.  

Why is Beijing so reluctant to let people and goods flow again over the Himalaya?

Why can’t China allow the devotees wanting to visit Kailash-Manasarovar to use the easiest route, that is, via Demchok?

Smuggling

It is not that there are no "exchanges" along the Line of Actual Control.

Not far from Demchok, a place called Dumchule witnesses a good deal of smuggling happening between Tibet and Ladakh.

Local herders visit a Tibetan mart on the other side of the range, bringing back Chinese goods to Ladakh. If while visiting the bazaar in Leh, you wonder how there are so many Chinese bowls or other cheap stuff, the answer is Dumchule.

But the situation is not healthy; apart from the fact that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) can gather intelligence on what is happening on the Indian side, (that is why they close their eyes on the traffic) and worse, Indian pilgrims are not allowed to cross into Tibet and proceed to Mount Kailash.

To officially reopen the Demchok-Tashigong road would be the best confidence building measure (CBM) between India and China.

After all under its "One Belt, One Road" scheme, China constantly speaks of opening new routes or corridors.

Does Beijing restrict these projects to its "friends" only (ie Pakistan and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor or Nepal in Zham and Kyirong)?

Let us hope that Wang will understand that it is in China’s interests to regularise the situation in Ladakh.

He should also clearly spell out China’s position: does Beijing still consider Ladakh a "disputed territory".

If not, why not open Demchok?

(Courtesy of Mail Today.)

Writer

Claude Arpi Claude Arpi

He is a French-born author, journalist, historian and Tibetologist.

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