Image Courtesy: Swarajya
On December 06, 2020, it was reported that China was building three villages near the border in Arunachal Pradesh[i]. On December 29, 2021, China went ahead and officially renamed 15 places in Arunachal Pradesh, claiming that it has sovereign right to do so[ii]. On January 04, 2022, it was again reported that China was building a bridge to link the North and South banks of the Pangong Lake in Ladakh.
Each of these actions have been claimed by the Chinese government as acts in exercise of their sovereign right. It is apparent that Chinese government is vigorously pursuing a policy of assertion, duly backed by armed engagements to keep both India and the rest of the world to be guessing and at best, be on the defensive. Thus it becomes necessary to understand whether the concept of sovereign right is invoke-able or the Chinese are, in their usual manner, utilizing the ambiguities in international law to further their national agenda.
The Montevideo Convention 1933, still forms the bedrock of all learned discourses on questions of territory and territorial claims. While United nations General Assembly (UNGA) Resolutions, decisions of the ICJ, contribute to such discourses, the decision of individual states to recognize or not to recognize such claims plays an important role. Under the Montevideo Convention, a defined territory is a necessary condition for territorial claims. A careful examination of the case of Israel for its membership of the UN reveals that the UNGA consider That the absence of delimitation or presence of disputes over territorial delimitation does not disqualify the claim to the status of a “State”[iii]. The ambiguity built into this considered view of UNGA resulted in grant of membership to Israel despite objections from Arab States.
The Case of Arunachal Pradesh
China’s purportedly historical claims over Arunachal Pradesh and Ladakh are at best what they are – purported, without any real basis. For example, claim over Arunachal Pradesh is merely resting on the birth of the 6th HH Dalai Lama Tsangyang Gyatso who was born in Tawang in 1683. The Mon tribal areas of present day Arunachal were called the Zayul (South Tibet), Long before Dalai lamas came to rule Tibet from Lhasa, Zayul or Kingdom of sPO BO (as it was known in Tibetan) was a powerful kingdom that occupied most of Tibet itself. Inevitably, it had faced Chinese invasions and survived them without ever becoming a tribute paying territory of China. Even at the beginning of the 20th century, the kingdom was still reasonably strong and it enjoyed actual independence from Lhasa. The government of the Dalai Lama did not exercise any real political control over sPo bo. The only payment that the sPo ba were obliged to make was a yearly tax to the Lhasa government consisting of 100 ke of butter to be delivered to the official of the rTse la rDzong district, or rdzong dpon, in neighbouring Kong po[iv]. With Tibet firmly under its control, China apparently is tweaking the history in a reverse order to lay claims to Arunachal Pradesh as a matter of sovereign right.
The Case of Ladakh
As an independent Kingdom, Ladakh had existed for over thousand years. In the 16th century, Ladakh was often at war with its neighbors i.e. the Muslim ruler of Kashmir (a vassal of the Mughal Emepror) and Tibet, apart from marauding Central Asian khans. In the war that broke out between Ladakh and Tibet in 1681, Ladakh sought help from the Kashmir ruler with whose assistance Tibetan armies were soundly defeated. Using this opportunity however, the Mughal Emperor encouraged Ladakh’s king to embrace Islam. Though it was a token acceptance, Islam thus made its formal entry into Ladakh. Notwithstanding the loss of battle, prompted by the long standing cultural ties and fearing the onset of Islam in Ladakh, King of Tibet proposed a treaty with Ladakh. The terms included the return of Gughe and Rudok regions in Western Tibet to Lhasa, while retaining the region around Minsar near Lake Manasarovar. Minsar continued to pay taxes to Ladakh and then Kashmir until the 1950s. Lhasa also agreed to send 200 animal caravan of tea to Ladakh and in return, Ladakh agreed to triennial Lopchak (lo-phyag) trade/tribute mission to Lhasa which was to present prescribed offerings to the Dalai Lama at the Monlam (smon-lam) great prayer festival[v].
The subsuming of Ladakh by the Dogra Kingdom of Jammu expressly permitted this Lopchak Missions to continue in its 1842 Dogra-Lhasa agreement. This system of trade/tribute missions continued even during the British colonial rule since the British did not see it as political submission of Ladakh to Lhasa[vi]. Eventually, after independence and accession of Kashmir into the Indian Union by Maharaja Hari Singh, India decided to stop the Lopchak mission in 1950 in view of Chinese activities in Tibet. In 1961 Chinese officials went so far as to claim the whole of Ladakh on the ground that the triennial Lopchak mission to Lhasa showed that Ladakh was subordinate to Tibet and was therefore part of China (Government of India 1961) (P 131).
Mao and the Five Fingers Policy
It is important to understand how contemporary claims of China over Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh are part of their political agenda. Mao Zedong, in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in the 1950s, talked about Tibet and the Himalayas in his Five Fingers Policy. He was explicit in saying: “Xizang (Tibet) is China’s right hand’s palm, which is detached from its five fingers — of Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and Arunachal (formerly NEFA). As all of these five are either occupied by, or under the influence of India, it is China’s responsibility to ‘liberate’ the five to be rejoined with Xizang (Tibet)”. Mao’s description of the five fingers was not based on his vision for China’s future; it was based on the historical perceptions that China developed about itself and in ample measure supported by the Tribute System[vii].
The present Chinese leadership is giving shape to the Five Fingers policy by a skillful exploitation of the loopholes in international law concerning territories. The nibbling away of the territories in the borders adjoining Ladakh, Arunachal Pradesh and similar maneuvers with Nepal and Bhutan demonstrate the intent of the Chinese leadership for exploiting the ambivalence in international law. Combined with aggressive diplomacy and claims to sovereign rights, China has already flouted the Arbitration Award in favour of Phillipines in the South China Sea.
The renaming of locations in Arunachal Pradesh and the building of bridge in Pangong Lake therefore are not to be seen as mere exercises in pressurizing India or any of its neighbors to negotiate terms favourable to it on the dialogues on border issues. Historical evidence actually suggests that even the occupation of Aksai Chin in 1962 is a step forward in its Five Finger Policy. Therefore, the temporary progress obtained during border talks between military brasses, appropriately lauded by Chinese government officials should only be seen as buying-time-while-lulling-the-neighbour-into-confidence tactic.
Playing it the Chinese Way
Loopholes in international law are a matter of concern to the international community. However, it must also be reckoned that no law can ever be comprehensive to address all situations that may invite their application. Conversationally speaking, if the Chinese interpretation of the Montevideo Convention or even the UNGA interpretation on Israel is available to others to gain control over territories by adopting similar tactics, then no other country has a better advantage on the Sino-Indian border issue than India.
Documented history reveals that Mon of Arunachal Pradesh had ruled vast territories in Tibet before the peaceable agreements with Dalai Lamas. Similarly, it is only in 1681 Ladakh conceded Gughe and Rudok to Tibet and continued to hold Minsar and Manasarovar Lake area till 1950. Thus the milder protestations and diplomatic conciliations that India registers on Chinese expansionist maneuvers actually help China in furthering its agenda.
It is time that the question of border is unambiguously spelt out to the Chinese government- that it stays in pre-1962 positions across all regions in the Himalayas and North East. No negotiation is possible until Chinese unilaterally dismantle all their constructions within the territories illegally under their occupation. Accepting the 1993 dialogues as the basis for border talks provides abundant scope to China for citing sovereign rights since this agreement technically allows China to maintain control over occupied areas till negotiated settlement is arrived at. By keeping the negotiations going for nearly two decades, it is apparent that the real intent to find a permanent solution is not the objective, at least in so far as China is concerned. The snail’s pace of the talk has also allowed it to expand its military and civil infrastructure that could be tactfully used to exploit the ambiguity in international law.
Spelling out India’s own historical claims in unambiguous terms, after decades of negotiation will present only two options: One, China recognizes that negotiations on territorial issues is played at par and the balance cannot be upset by surreptitious exploitation of legal ambiguities; two, option to use force to claim territories will be to its greater disadvantage in a world that is compellingly inclusive due to forces of globalization.
It is also important to reckon that China’s BRI dream largely rests on a peaceable and reconciliatory approach. With a politically unstable Pakistan and Taliban ruled Afghanistan close to its own restive Xinjiang region, the reconciliatory approach would be in its favour. India must exploit this geopolitical situation to find a permanent solution to the Sino-Indian border issue before China’s outreach into the Middle East compels it to accept terms that may be thrust upon it by Chinese BRI ambitions.
(Dr. R Srinivasan is an independent researcher and the Managing Editor of Electronic Journal of Social and Strategic Studies (www.ejsss.net.in) He can be contacted at email@example.com. The views expressed are personal.)
 Gughe (in present-day Zanda County in far western Tibet, 50 kilometers from Xinjiang-Tibet Highway and 250 kilometers west of Mt Kailash) was an ancient kingdom founded by a branch of descendants of the last king of a unified Tibet in the 10th century.
 Rudok is the historical capital of the Rudok area in Western Tibet on the frontier with Ladakh. Rudok town is approximately 1140 km west North West of Lhasa.
[i] Som, V. (2020, December 06). NDTV. Retrieved December 06, 2020, from Exclusive: China Sets Up 3 Villages Near Arunachal, Relocates Villagers: https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/exclusive-china-sets-up-3-villages-near-arunachal-pradesh-relocates-villagers-2334869
[ii] TNIE (2021, December 31). A strategy of assertion: Why China is inventing names for places in Arunachal Pradesh, The New Indian Express, Explained Desk, New Delhi. https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/a-strategy-of-assertion-why-china-is-inventing-names-for-places-in-arunachal-pradesh-7699576/
[iii] UNGA. (n.d). UNGA. Retrieved December 01, 2020, from Resolution 181 (II). Future government of Palestine 29 Nov 1947: https://unispal.un.org/DPA/DPR/unispal.nsf/0/7F0AF2BD897689B785256C330061D253
[iv] Lazcano, Santiago (April 2005). ETHNOHISTORIC NOTES ON THE ANCIENT TIBETAN KINGDOM OF sPO BO AND ITS INFLUENCE ON THE EASTERN HIMALAYAS, Revue d’Etudes Tibétaines, Vol 7, April 2005, Pp 51. https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.508.2403&rep=rep1&type=pdf Retrieved 06 January 2022.
[v] Bray, John (1991). Ladakhi History and Indian Nationhood, South Asia Research, Volume 11, No. 2, November 1991, Pp 117.
[vi] Ibid, Pp
[vii] Srinivasan, R (2021). BRI, Neo-Tribute System and International Financial Assistance: Perspectives for South Asia, South Asia and China, A Subramanyam Raju (Ed), Routledge India: New Delhi, 2021.