The Mystery Of Missing Thousand Miles In J&K18 December 2010
The Indian Express
New Delhi: As questions of territorial sovereignty return to the centrestage in Sino-Indian relations, Beijing has added a new twist to the long-running boundary dispute between the two countries by knocking off nearly 1,600 km from its definition of China’s border with India. A Xinhua report from Beijing earlier this week on the eve of premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to India described the Sino-Indian border as nearly 2,000-km long. The Indian count of the operational border is a lot longer at nearly 3,500 km (not taking into account the line separating Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and China). The discrepancy is too large to be treated as an inadvertent error in Beijing. So, where did the hundreds of kilometers disappear? China apparently no longer treats the line of nearly 1,600 km separating Jammu and Kashmir on the one hand and Xinjiang and Tibet on the other as a border with India. China’s recasting of the length of the border with India appears to be part of the Kashmir puzzle that Beijing has unveiled in recent years. The other pieces include the recent policy of issuing stapled visas to Indian citizens from J&K, the reluctance to host a visit by the Northern Commander of the Indian Army Lt. Gen. B.S. Jaswal, the dramatic expansion of the Chinese activity in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir that includes the modernisation of the Karakoram Highway and the plans to construct a new rail line and oil pipeline between Kashgar in Xinjiang and the Gwadar port on Pakistan’s Makran coast. Xinhua’s reference to 2,000 km of Sino-Indian border was based on an official briefing by the Assistant Foreign Minister of China, Hu Zhengyue to the Beijing press corps on Monday. Minister Hu’s shortening of the border with India does not appear to be a one-off comment. The figure 2,000 km appears to have become the new normal in the official Chinese characterisation of the border with India. A day before Wen arrived in India, The Global Times-an English language newspaper published by the People’s Daily, the official organ of the Chinese Communist Party-contradicted the Indian figure of 3,500 km for the operational border between the two nations. In an interview with the Indian Ambassador to China, S. Jaishankar, the Global Times asked about the reported tensions on the border. In response, Jaishankar said, “The reality contradicts any alarmist depiction of the situation on the border, whether in India or in China. We have a long common border of 3,488 km.” In publishing the interview in its Tuesday’s editions, the editors of the Global Times chose to add in parenthesis the following: “There is no settled length of the common border. The Chinese government often refers to the border length as being ‘about 2,000 km.” Given Beijing’s new emphasis on a shorter border with India, Delhi can’t ignore the issue any longer. After all, the Chinese are quite careful and very definitive in articulating their boundary claims. Beijing’s official figure for the Indian border at about 2,000 km makes sense only if the boundary between J&K and China is disregarded. From the Indian count, the western sector that covers the frontier of Jammu & Kashmir is 1,597 km (nearly 1,000 miles). For decades now, Delhi and Beijing have discussed, as a mater of routine, the western sector of J&K as part of their boundary talks. The first signs of trouble on the western sector came nearly a decade ago during NDA tenure, when Delhi tried to exchange maps of the border with Beijing as part of an effort to clarify the Line of Actual Control on their vast frontiers. The maps for the central sector were quickly exchanged; but Beijing was reluctant to do the same in the western sector. Part of the problem was said to be Chinese concern about Pakistan’s sensitivity to the delineation of the Sino-Indian border in J&K. The new Chinese approach to the western sector reveals that India’s problem could be much larger than the question of stapled visas. It might be about a fundamental ambivalence in Beijing about India’s sovereignty over J&K. Just as the Chinese decision to call Arunachal Pradesh as ‘South Tibet’ has begun to gain international traction, the repeated references to the length of Sino-Indian border as 2,000 km is bound to have an impact on the global discourse about J&K. Beijing’s new position underlines China’s centrality in J&K. While the Indian debate on Kashmir is usually focussed on Pakistan, China’s presence in the state might be emerging as a decisive new factor. India claims that China is in occupation of nearly 38,000 sq km of Indian territory in the Ladakh region of J&K. China is also in control of nearly 5,000 sq km of Shaksgam valley in PoK ceded by Islamabad to Beijing in March 1963. Until now India has sought to negotiate its territorial disputes in Kashmir separately with Pakistan and China. India might now have to come to terms with the changing geopolitics of J&K, where India’s two fronts with Pakistan and China come together.