Brig Anil Gupta
Chairman Mao Zedong, modern China’s most powerful ideologue, considered Tibet to be the right hand’s palm of China with Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and NEFA (Arunachal Pradesh) as its five fingers. It therefore was China’s responsibility to “liberate” these regions believed Mao. After annexation of Tibet it was widely expected that China may attempt to liberate these regions but global outcry against Tibet’s annexation forced Mao to distance himself temporarily from the idea. In 1954, Chinese officers in Tibet claimed that they would “liberate Sikkim, Bhutan, Ladakh, and the NEFA, which were wrongfully being held by the Indian imperialists.”In the same year, the Chinese Government published a school book called “A Brief History of Modern China”, which included a map showing the territories allegedly taken by “imperialist powers” between 1840 and 1919, and included Ladakh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim, and the entire Northeast India.It was emphasised in the book that these areas were “portions of China that must be reclaimed.” Such voices grew louder and frequent after Premier Chou Enlai’s crucial visit in 1960 wherein Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru rejected the offer of his “package deal” for a final settlement of the border dispute. When Nehru raised the matter with China he was told that China’s claims to these border territories were based on the same claim as for their invasion of Tibet. Despite Mao wanting to keep China distanced from its feudal past, it never gave up the “Middle Kingdom Complex”. Mao through annexation of Xinjiang and Tibet gave China common borders with India, Nepal and Bhutan.
Xi Jinping, the modern day avatar of Mao Zedong, has taken upon himself the task of fulfilling the Mao’s dream of “liberating” the “Five Fingers”. Out of the five fingers while two are sovereign nations bordering India, the other three are integral part of India. As part of his “China Dream”, he wants to achieve the “rejuvenation of the great Chinese nation” that includes recovery of those Chinese territories which were lost through unequal treaties imposed by the imperial or hostile foreign powers. Xi termed it as “the greatest dream for the Chinese nation in modern history”. Xi wanted to strengthen the hold of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) by invoking nationalism. Having set various deadlines to fulfil the “China Dream”, Xi is in a hurry to prove himself belonging to same class and stature as that of Mao in modern China’s history.
Having strengthened his hold over the territories falling under the 9-dash lines despite rejection by an international tribunal and global concerns about China’s growing maritime expansionism, Xi turned his attention towards consolidating the claim over “Five Fingers.” The Chinese PLA Army had been biting the fingers through its strategy of salami-slicing but Xi wanted to achieve bigger aim and gains. The 2017 Doklam-standoff was the early manifestation of Xi’s dream of rejuvenation.
In 2017, after a near 3-month stand-off with India followed by a mutual withdrawal, China re-occupied the Doklam Plateau-at the intersection of Tibet, Sikkim and Bhutan. India is the de facto guarantor of Bhutanese security. In 2020, during the Ladakh stand-off China sprung another surprise by laying claim to another 11% of the tiny kingdom’s territory in Eastern Bhutan.
In April and May last year, Xi had the PLA Army carry out a series of well-coordinated incursions into Ladakh, leading to a bloody clash at Galwan on 15 June, leaving 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese troops dead. The intruding forces set up heavily fortified encampments in areas North of Pangong Tso. He then deployed tens of thousands of troops along the disputed Line of Actual Control with Ladakh, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. Opposite Ladakh, the Chinese not only deployed the PLA Air Force but also its strategic Rocket force.
Despite continuing bilateral efforts to disengage rival forces they remain in eyeball to eyeball contact on the icy heights during the peak winter with the chances of further clashes or a war still looming large with Xi Jinping refusing to relent.
Having recognised Sikkim’s merger, one of the three fingers, in 2003 China has again begun incursions in the area in a bid to renew its claim and further its expansionist designs.
CCP has not spared even Nepal, the fifth ‘finger’, despite it being under the communist rule two and a half years ago. It has also become the victim of CCP’s territorial predation despite being in China’s strategic orbit.
To hasten up the CCP’s urge for territorial plunder, Xi has authorised the salami-slicing to be complemented with establishment of population centres with hutment settlements to further strengthen its hold in the claimed territories. In November 2020, reports emerged of the Chinese having constructed a new village inside two kilometres of Bhutanese territory on the eastern periphery of the disputed Doklam plateau. This followed the earlier Chinese claim the same year of the Sakteng sanctuary in Eastern Bhutan. Similar construction was reported in Nepal a month earlier. After encroaching upon the Nepalese territory China backstabbed Nepal by claiming that newly built village came under the Tibet Autonomous region and not Nepal. A clear manifestation of its five finger claim.
The latest flash in the pan was reported by the TV channel NDTV when it reported that China has constructed a new village consisting of 101 homes, approximately 4.5 kilometres within the Indian Territory in Arunachal Pradesh, citing satellite images accessed by it. The village, located on the banks of the River Tsari Chu, in the Upper Subansiri district of the state could not be seen in satellite images of the same area taken in August 2019, suggesting that the construction was done at some point since then, as was visible in the imagery of November 2020. This coincided with the construction of hutments near Doklam.
The report aroused domestic sentiments since the nation is already embroiled in a bitter stand-off in Ladakh. But the Chinese seem to be unmoved and like the earlier two constructions in Nepal and Bhutan, insist on the construction being in their own territory of Southern Tibet. It would be worth to mention here that China has repeatedly refused to acknowledge NEFA (now Arunachal Pradesh) as part of Indian Territory and claim it as one of the fingers of Tibet.
The Chinese belligerence and “Big Bully” mind set can be gauged from the article published in CCP’s English mouth piece Global Times. It quotes Chinese Foreign Minister to say that “China’s village construction in its southern Tibet is a matter of sovereignty”, thus showing scant respect for India’s claim. She went on to say that China’s position on the east sector of the China-India boundary, or Zanganan (the southern part of China’s Tibet), is consistent and clear and China has never recognised the so-called “Arunachal Pradesh” illegally established on the Chinese territory. A clear manifestation of CCP’s 3W strategy, with Lawfare being one of them.
India’s stand has been contrary and firm. India claims the entire Arunachal Pradesh (including areas under forcible occupation of China) as its integral part. In fact the “Package Deal” proposed by Chou Enlai in 1960, which Nehru rejected, envisaged China’s recognition of entire NEFA as Indian Territory if India recognised the Aksai Chin plateau in the North as Chinese territory. The fact remains that the village – consisting of 101 new homes has been built on land controlled by the PLA since 1959 and is not on territory controlled by India.The village has been built on the disputed border in Upper Subansiri district territory under Chinese control. India established an Assam Rifles post in the area in 1959 in general area Longju.
In June 1959, China accused Indian troops of occupying some places in Tibet and colluding with Tibetan rebels. In August, the People’s Liberation Army clashed with the Indian personnel – the 9 Assam Rifles. Two Indian soldiers were killed in action and the issue was finally resolved through diplomatic channels. Both sides withdrew from the area on August 20, 1960.
Assam Rifles did not re-occupy the post. In the late 1990s however, China established a company level post 3 kilometres inside Indian Territory. In early 2000s the PLA extended the track further into Indian Territory, the area remains contested to this day.
The opposition parties led by Congress lost no time in politicising the issue and begun to take pot shots at the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, least realising that the area has been under the Chinese control since 1959.
In case, India has to face the Chinese might, the unity at home is mandatory. Playing politics with the matters of national security and sovereignty will only embolden the territorial hunger of CCP and hasten fulfilling the five finger dream of Mao.
Though New Delhi has revised its frontier policy and security arrangements much needs to be done yet to make India’s borders safe with modern means of connectivity and infrastructure. Changing geopolitics of the region might have serious ramifications for Indian Security if we remain a divided house on the vital issue of national security.
(The author is a Jammu-based veteran political commentator, columnist, security and strategic analyst.)
Brig Anil Gupta