The Chinese claim of sovereign rights over the entire Galwan river valley is essentially Beijing’s bid to turn the clock back to 1962, when its army advanced briefly in these barren uplands belonging to India. China probably feels, just like then, India will stand down to its aggressive tactics.
River Galwan is more like a stream or a nullah, which originates from the Aksai Chin, flowing through a narrow valley to meet River Shyok on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
The river takes a sharp bend before merging with the Shyok, thus forming a Y-like shape which on the Indian side has come to be known as the Y-nullah or Y-junction. The Chinese side broadly refers to this as the Galwan-Shyok ‘estuary’. The LAC, according to the Indian side, is a couple of kilometres east of this point.
The valley was never part of China’s claims until 1960. In the 1950s when Beijing first asserted its right over Aksai Chin by building what is today the 2342 km China National Highway 219 connecting its western province of Xinjiang with Tibet, it also pushed its claim with India further south-west. India objected, but China went ahead and presented a claim line in 1956.
“Till 1956, Chinese claims to territory south of the Kuen-Lun range had been vaguely described as ‘the southern part of China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous region’. This vagueness could have been a deliberate policy that gave the Chinese room to make extravagant claims unrelated to geographical realities,” observed Maj Gen D K Palit, Director of Military of Operations during the 1962 conflict in his book ‘War in the High Himalayas’.
The 1956 line emanated from the Karakoram, cutting across the Aksai Chin, west of its newly constructed Highway 219 but well east of the Galwan Valley. As tensions rose between both sides, China built posts that gradually established this line on the ground. The last post at the start of the Galwan Valley was Samzungling, which became a key base for the Chinese PLA in 1962 for conducting its Galwan operations.
The 1956 alignment was the one that the then Chinese premier, Chou-en-Lai, confirmed to former PM Jawaharlal Nehru in 1959. The map he gave did not contain Galwan, a fact which would become a contentious point in the boundary talks a year later. India, however, rejected the 1956 claim line because, as per Delhi’s position, the whole of Aksai Chin was Indian Territory.
By the time Chou-en-Lai visited Delhi for talks in 1960, positions had hardened on both sides. The Longju and Kongka pass incidents had left the Indian political leadership quite angry. Besides Nehru, the Chinese premier had rough conversations with Home Minister Govind Ballabh Pant and Finance Minister Morarji Desai.
The CIA working paper titled ‘The Sino-Indian border dispute’ on the period leading up to the 1962 conflict records the visit quite vividly, especially how then Vice-President S. Radhakrishnan told off Chou when he drew attention to Chinese legends up to the 12th Century that refer to Ladakh and Aksai Chin as part of China. “…the vice president reportedly replied that on such a basis India could claim Kandahar, Kabul, and many other areas, including parts of China. Radhakrishnan went on to nettle Chou with the comment that ‘You have hurt us deeply, and it is surprising you don’t know it’!”
The Vice-President’s son, noted historian Dr. S. Gopal, used to then head the History division of the Ministry of External Affairs. He would play a key role in the coming months as a member of the Indian boundary negotiating team. He was the one who first studied the Chinese claim on Galwan and Chip Chap river valleys.
The Chinese premier stayed in Delhi for six days, hoping to convince India to a border settlement, especially after having just done so with Burma. But the talks failed, and the only outcome was an understanding to have official-level talksto study the documentary evidence of each other’s claims.
THE 1960 TALKS
The Indian side was led by then head of China division Jagat Singh Mehta, assisted by Dr Gopal, among others. The Chinese side was led by Chang Wen-chin, Director, First Asian Department, and Yang Kung-su, Director, Tibet Bureau of Foreign Affairs. The two sides held three rounds of talks in Beijing (June 15 to July 25; 18 meetings), Delhi (August 19 to October 5; 19 meetings) and Rangoon (November 7 to December 12; 10 meetings).
But at the first meeting itself, China lobbed a big surprise when Director Yang outlined a whole new claim line which for the first time included the Galwan river valley.
“The location of the portion between Sinkiang and Ladakh is as follows: From the Karakoram Pass it runs eastward along the mountain ridge to a point east of 78 degrees East Longitude, turns south-eastward along the high ridge of the Karakoram Mountains on the east bank of the Shyok River and northern bank of the Kugrang Tsangpo River down to Kongka Pass. The terrain features of the portion between Tibet and Ladakh are complicated. They include mountain passes, river valleys, lakes and watersheds.”
THE BATTLE FOR GALWAN
The Galwan valley was where Nehru’s ‘Forward Policy’ clashed with Mao Tse-Tung’s policy of ‘Armed Co-existence’. The situation in this sector was monitored at the highest levels on both sides right from the start, thus conveying its political and military significance.
Initially, it appears from all accounts that the Chinese probably thought that the Samzungling post was enough to keep a watch on the valley. But subsequently, it did establish another post along the valley called ‘River 5’. On the Indian side, there was actually a difference of view on whether to set up a post as per the Forward Policy in the Galwan Valley. The Intelligence Bureau, then headed by legendary sleuth B N Mullick, pressed for one to be set up.
The Army, however, was not enthusiastic as it saw no merit in setting up a post just to plant the flag for ‘administrative purposes’, and not be able to logistically support it. Maj Gen Palit records this conflict: “The DIB had long been clamouring for us to set up a post in this (Galwan) Valley….Daulet Singh (Western Army Commander) had objected to this proposal because he felt that the Chinese would interpret it as a deliberate measure to cut off the lines of communication to their post at Samzungling. But he was overruled at the post was ordered to be established.”
This move finds detailed mention in the Chinese records, which were later captured in a two-year USI study (2013 to 2015) of declassified Chinese documents on the 1962 war, edited by Maj Gen ( Retd) PJS Sandhu. According to this study, the Chinese recorded that on July 5, 1962, some 40 Indian troops set up a post in the Valley that “cut off the rear approach to Chinese post ‘Day 9’ (subsequently changed to River 5)”. The Indian forces had basically gone behind Chinese troops and cut their line of communication with Samzungling. Patrols from both sides came face-to-face on several occasions here.
1962 & BEYOND
In the so-called unilateral ceasefire announced by China in November 1962, Beijing proposed that either side withdraw 20 km from their respective positions. With winter setting in, the Chinese PLA were in no position to maintain posts in the Galwan Valley. Neither side would venture into those areas for a while, except for sending the odd patrol to mark their territory.
Subsequently, when both sides gathered in the 1990s to discuss the Line of Actual Control, there were 12 areas in Ladakh where a difference in perception existed between India and China. Pangong Tso and the Depsang plains were prominent among them.
Galwan, however, was not on that list. Both sides had no dispute over where the LAC ran in this place. That’s how Patrol Points 14, 15 and 17 came to be established. The 1960 claim line extended to coordinates Longitude 78° 13′ E, Latitude 34. 46′ N, which stops short of the Y-nullah where the Indian and Chinese forces are now amassed.
So, Chinese forces have clearly pushed beyond where they had reached in 1962, trying to move ahead of the bend and inch closer to River Shyok. The safety of the DSDBO road will be compromised if that were to happen. In other words, China wants to now assert physical control over areas it had advanced – and subsequently withdrawn – in 1962. And add a few kilometres for tactical comfort. India, of course, will resist any such arm-twisting, as is playing out at the mouth of the Galwan.
What’s instructive, however, is after all that’s changed in both countries during the past 58 years, China still prefers to maintain a 1962 approach to India – and in all likelihood, views it as an effective way to enforce a negative power differential on India.