We shut our eyes once, let’s not do so again
China is pressing India to jump on board the mega One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative. The Global Times recently complained: “New Delhi has yet to sign up for the OBOR, and has claimed that there is a sovereignty issue with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) passing through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK).”
The mouthpiece of Communist Party of China contemptuously added: “It should also be noted that New Delhi cannot prevent the growth of the OBOR’s influence. If India wants to exclude itself from the OBOR at a time when the initiative is receiving widespread support from the global community, India will end up simply watching the rise of China’s international reputation.” Beijing forgets to mention that for centuries, trade was flourishing between India and Central Asia, though not through a far-away corridor, but via the Himalayan passes.
Historians rarely mention an event which had the most serious strategic consequences for India. It is the 1953 closure of the Indian consulate in Kashgar (Xinjiang), which for centuries was the main trade hub between the sub-continent and Central Asia. China’s unilateral decision to close the consulate (and the trade) should have been seen as an ominous sign by the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his colleagues. Unfortunately, it was not.
As in several other cases, the Indian Prime Minister tried to justify the Chinese diktats, without taking any retaliatory or compensatory measures or even protesting. India’s interests were lost to the ‘revolutionary changes’ there.
In December 1953, Nehru declared in Parliament: “Some major changes have taken place there [Kashgar]… But when these changes, revolutionary changes, took place there [we had to close our consulate], it is perfectly true that the Chinese Government, when they came to Tibet, told us that they intended to treat Sinkiang [Xinjiang] as a closed area.” India had traded with Central Asia and more particularly Kashgar, Yarkand or Khotan for ages. But just because ‘revolutionary changes’ had occurred in China, New Delhi accepted the end of the trade as a fait accompli, without even a discussion. At that time, the Karakoram Pass still witnessed a large numbers of caravans carrying goods from Kashmir to Central Asia and back.
In April 1954, a few months after the closure of the consulate, India did not use the opportunity of the negotiations for the Panchsheel agreement to clarify the stoppage of the Central Asian trade, and the Chinese were allowed to walk away with making a vague statement. It was Beijing’s victory.
One of the main reasons for forcing Delhi to close its consulate in Kashgar was the road that China was building across the Aksai Chin area – on Indian territory. The communists did not want any witnesses. The Government of India never acknowledged it, but it had information about the Aksai Chin road as early as 1954-55. So did the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which recently released several lakhs of historical documents.
One of communist China’s main objectives was to control the trade routes to Central Asia. Two CIA Information Reports dating from 1953, throw some light on the issue. On July 15, 1953, a note deals with “Chinese Communist Troops, West Tibet” and “Road Construction, Sinkiang to Tibet and Ladakh”. It says that in late 1952, the 2 Cavalry Regiment, commanded by one Han Tse-min, had set up his headquarters at Gartok (the main trade centre in Western Tibet). It mentions that the regiment had 800 camels and 150 men garrisoned at Rutok, in the vicinity of the Pangong lake, shared with Ladakh. The same report affirms that another PLA regiment was stationed on the Tibetan side of the Tibet-Ladakh border, near Koyul in the Indus Valley in Ladakh.
The local Chinese commander, Han Tse-min, asserted that “when these roads were completed, the Chinese Communists would close the Tibet Ladakh border to trade”. They did it a few months later, by forcing India to close its Kashgar consulate. According to the same CIA source, Han had declared that “the Chinese Communists in Sinkiang [Xinjiang] were telling the people that Ladakh belongs to Sinkiang.” The Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai wave was most likely too strong; Nehru and his colleagues (BN Mullick, the IB chief in particular) had ‘more important’ isuses to deal with than a road!
Ten days later, another CIA note detailed the trade between Ladakh and Xinjiang, giving the coordinates for each place: “The Tibetan traders who visit Leh, are from the Chang Tang area, an arid plateau region in northern Tibet [plain between Xinjiang and Tibet].”
This shows how trade was still thriving in 1953. All this ended once the Aksai Chin road became fully operational. The CIA remarked: “The only Chinese in northwestern Tibet are the Chinese Communist troops, seven or eight hundred of whom are stationed along the Tibet-Ladakh border. They first appeared in northwestern Tibet in 1951, having come from the Khotan.” Though Delhi was still pretending not to know, the Aksai Chin road was opened on 6th October, 1957.
A Chinese newspaper, Kuangming Jihpao, reported: “The Sinkiang-Tibet has been completed. During the past few days, a number of trucks running on the highway on a trial basis have arrived in Gartok in Tibet from Yecheng in Xinjiang [near Yarkand]. The Xinjiang-Tibet Highway… is 1179 km long, of which 915km are more than 4,000 metres above sea level; 130 km of it over 5,000 metres above sea level, with the highest point being 5,500 metres.”
The reporter spoke of “thirty heavy-duty trucks, fully loaded with road builders, maintenance equipment and fuels, running on the highway on a trial basis” heading towards Tibet.
Once the Aksai Chin road officially opened, China did not need anymore the Indian trade; Tibet and Central Asia were linked. It should have been obvious for everyone that India’s Kashgar consulate had been closed to hide the fact that the communists were building a road on Indian soil and that China did not want India to trade with Central Asia. In recent weeks, one question has often been raised by Indian think tanks: should India participate in the new trade routes initiated by China?
Nobody dares to question the viability of President Xi Jinping’s dream of a ‘Revitalised China’ through the mammoth OBOR initiative, which would connect Asia (read China) with Europe and Africa via the ancient trading centres of Central Asia and Eastern Europe. At the same time, all the ancient trade routes between India and Central Asia remain closed, particularly between India and Tibet and Xinjiang.
The time has perhaps come for India to ask China to re-open the Consulates in Kashgar and Lhasa, then India could sincerely think of participating in the Belt and Road project.
(The writer an expert on India-china relations and an author)