A few years ago, a Ladakhi friend recounted a telling story. During a party at the Chinese Embassy in Delhi, he enquired with an official about visiting Tibet one day.
The official immediately answered that there is no problem, everything can be arranged. My friend was delighted. Then he asked: What about my visa? The official retorted: You don’t need one, you are one of us. I don’t think he applied to go to Tibet thereafter.
An old dispute ::
Perhaps, the Chinese diplomat was not aware of all the bureaucratic niceties, but the story came back to mind after Zhang Jun, China’s Permanent Representative to the UN, recently gave a press conference, when China distastefully decided to support Pakistan against the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution.
Zhang started by saying that the Kashmir issue should be resolved through peaceful means in accordance with the UN Charter and the relevant Security Council resolutions, but he added that India had changed the status quo in Kashmir, causing tensions in the region. He argued that India had challenged China’s sovereign interests: I wish to emphasise that such practice by India is not valid in relation to China, and will not change China’s exercise of sovereignty and effective administrative jurisdiction over the relevant territory.
Does it mean that Beijing has some sovereign rights over Ladakh?
Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi is said to have brought up the same issue with his Indian counterpart, S Jaishankar, who adequately answered that no status-quo was changed.
Zhang may have opened a Pandora’s box: India is now free to speak on the human rights in Tibet, the fate of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang or the aspirations of the Hong Kong population. It however raises another issue: Does China consider Ladakh as its territory?
On March 23, 1954, after three months of tough negotiations, the Indian and Chinese representatives were still far from an agreement on trade between India and Tibet. That day, Indian Ambassador N Raghavan cabled Delhi that the Chinese had objected to keeping open the old traditional route via Demchok in Ladakh. He could not understand why.
On April 24, Raghavan informed Delhi about a fight between him and Zhang Hanfu, his Chinese counterpart: It was royal fight from beginning to end. Raghavan discovered that China had a big problem with Ladakh. It virulently objected to the Ladakh route being included in the agreement. Zhang quoted an oral understanding [China] would not like in writing even by implication to have any reference to Ladakh, cabled Raghavan to Delhi.
Passport wrangling ::
Why? Simply because the mountainous region was considered a disputed’ region, with China claiming part of it; the route has never been reopened since then.
Later, Kushok Bakula, the Ladakhi leader expressed his interest to visit Tibet. A minister in the J&K government, Bakula had to travel on a diplomatic passport. China objected and in a note its external affairs ministry explained: Kushok Bakula occupies an important official position in one of our states and we wish him to be given not only ordinary facilities as a pilgrim but also courtesies due to a Deputy Minister in one of our states. Delhi had a doubt: Did China accept India’s relationship with Kashmir and Ladakh?
TN Kaul, the Indian Chargé d’affaires in Beijing, was aware of Beijing’s ambivalence on J&K and Ladakh: The Chinese authorities are unwilling to accord any kind of tacit recognition to Ladakh’s status as an integral part of India. After some threats, Bakula was finally authorised to travel on an Indian passport.
An impasse prevails ::
In 2010, the denial of a visa to Lt Gen BS Jaswal who headed the Northern Command looking after J&K, (including Ladakh) was another sign that China still had a problem with Ladakh.
In October 2018, the Army HQ invited the defence and military attachés based in Delhi for a tour of Ladakh, including some areas close to the Line of Actual Control to familiarise them with the prevailing situation in the forward areas. The Chinese Defence Attache declined the invitation without explaining. In 2019, his successor happily accepted to join his foreign colleagues in Sikkim and even visited Nathu-la, the border post with China. The only difference between the two visits is that Sikkim is not disputed’. Can Jamyang Tsering Namgyal, the young MP of Ladakh, apply for a visa to China? Let us then watch Beijing’s reaction.
This does not augur well for the informal’ meet between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Varanasi in October and before that, for the next round of boundary talks between the Special Representatives, NSA Ajit Doval and Wang Yi.
While Wang already announced that China was looking at early harvest’ in the negotiations and that he had sent some proposals’ to the Indian government, it is difficult to envisage a solution to the vexed issue in the present tense atmosphere entirely created by China. Is China really interested in finding a solution to the border issue? How to envisage anything positive in the present situation? China needs to choose whether to continue supporting terror in Pakistan, claim Ladakh or solve the boundary dispute.