South Asia and Beyond

Since When Was Galwan Chinese?

 Since When Was Galwan Chinese?

On June 19, 2020, the Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian, one of the ‘Wolf-Warrior’ diplomats, asserted that the Galwan Valley is located “on the Chinese side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the west section of the China-India boundary”. He further said that Galwan has always belonged to China. In the same statement, Zhao exonerated the Chinese troops of any blame. All this does not stand serious scrutiny. Constantly repeating a lie, i.e. Galwan and the Aksai Chin areas have been Chinese, and this, since time immemorial, does not make it true.

No Chinese In The Area Till Mid-1950s

The fact is that no Chinese national ever set a foot in the area till the mid-1950s and it is only due to the then Indian government’s weakness and negligence that Mr Zhao is able to make such outrageous claims today. One event is crucial to understand the recent development in Eastern Ladakh (EL); it is the annexation of Eastern Turkestan, now known as Xinjiang, the Western Province, by the Communist forces at the end of 1949. In Mandarin, Xinjiang literally means ‘New Frontier’ or ‘New Territory’, a proof in itself that the area is ‘new’ to the Middle Kingdom.

Some formerly classified documents from the Russian archives about the annexation of Xinjiang, have recently been made public by the History and Public Policy Program at the Wilson Centre in the US; they shed some light on this historical event. Charles Kraus, the program’s Deputy Director wrote: “The Chinese People’s Liberation Army invasion in October 1949 of Xinjiang, the vast ‘province’ bordering the Mongolian People’s Republic and Soviet Central Asia, was a stunning development.”[1] It is worth remembering that Eastern Turkestan, as the area was known at that time, was a more or less independent nation, with a small Nationalist military presence, but under the Soviet Union’s tutelage.

The Soviet Green Light

Anastas Mikoyan, a member of the Soviet Union’s Politburo, was the Soviet leader designated to take contact with the Chinese Communist Party. Mao Zedong arrived in Moscow on January 30, 1949; on the previous day, Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government had abandoned Nanjing to move to Canton. Mikoyan informed the Politburo that Mao had already proclaimed that Stalin was the supreme leader of world communism and the ‘teacher of the Chinese people’ (Mikoyan also added that Mao did not genuinely believe what he was saying). However, the Soviet leaders knew that the winds had turned in China in favour of the CPC.

On February 4, 1949, Mikoyan met Mao Zedong, who was accompanied by members of the Chinese Communist Party’s Standing Committee of the Politburo, Zhou Enlai, Liu Shaoqi, Marshal Zhu De, and Ren Bishi. Mao had informed the Soviets that he wanted to discuss Xinjiang. The future Great Helmsman started the conversation: “In the Yili district of Xinjiang, which is subordinate to the Urumqi government, there is an independence movement and there is a Communist Party there.” [2] Mikoyan replied that he did not know about the existence of a communist party in the Yili district, but he knew about the national movement of the local nationalities; he interestingly remarked: “This movement was triggered by the incorrect policy of the Chinese government, which does not want to take into account the national specifics of these nationalities, does not present rights of self-rule, does not permit the development of the national culture.”

The Soviet leader added: “If the nationalities of Xinjiang were [not] given autonomy, the soil for the independence movement would likely remain. …We do not stand for the movement of independence of the Xinjiang nationalities and do not have any claims on Xinjiang territory.” These remarks of Mikoyan sound valid even today. Mikoyan later gave Mao the green light he needed to send the PLA in Xinjiang.

The Annexation And Closure Of The Kashgar Consulate

On October 1, 1949 Mao Zedong announced from the rostrum of Tiananmen Square in Beijing the birth of the People’s Republic; the Great Helmsman did not waste a day; he immediately moved to annex the territories in the West of the Middle Kingdom. Kraus explained: “Of course, taking hold of the oil and other strategic resources present in Xinjiang motivated Mao.”[3] According to the US scholar, “but no one expected the PLA to move quickly. …Xinjiang was too distant, there was no reliable means of transportation, the weather was turning cold, and troop morale was low.” In less than two months, the PLA annexed Xinjiang (refer to the Map below) and in the same stroke closed down the Indian Consulate General in Kashgar.

India’s observatory post watching Central Asia was no more. Delhi was told that the new regime would have to renegotiate all its former agreements, a position untenable in international law; but in 1953, Nehru announced in the Parliament that India had to close its Consulate in Kashgar because “nothing could be done about it”. The capture of Xinjiang was a great military feat and a master strategic coup; the doors to Northern India were suddenly open to China. By taking over Xinjiang, Mao controlled the Middle Kingdom’s western borders and trade with Central Asia; for the first time, he also came in contact with the Indian frontiers, particularly the Aksai Chin area, which witnesses the present tension.

Kraus concluded: “The invasion was military cunning combined with political skill and, frankly, dumb luck.”[4] Mao’s strategic vision and his ‘dumb luck’ helped to prepare the background for the contemporary events in Galwan, Hot Springs, Depsang or Pangong Tso areas.

The Southern Advance In The 1950s

In 1950, several ominous signs should have forced the Indian government to read beyond the Chinese rhetoric and the Chinese Premier’s assurance of eternal friendship with India. It would not be. What followed was just a logical outcome of Mao’s first move in Xinjiang: Western Tibet was invaded a year later; as the two new provinces of Xinjiang and Tibet needed to be linked, a road across Indian territory in the Aksai Chin was started in 1953-54; Delhi chose to close its eyes.

In a note written in 1963, the Indian government explained: “Territorial claims were put forward for the first time by the Chinese Prime Minister in September 1959, [was] based on a Chinese map published in 1956. In December 1959 [Zhou] affirmed the boundary on this map as the correct boundary claimed by China. …Since then the Chinese claim line has varied according to China’s bargaining convenience and the progressively increasing extent of occupation of Indian territory through force.”[5]

In 1960, Beijing produced another map engulfing large parts of Ladakh; Delhi probably did not realize the implications, thinking that China was still a ‘friend’. The line had moved hundreds of kilometres south from Kashgar and Hotan, which had only been occupied a decade earlier. Then in July 1962, the first clash took place in Galwan; on July 26, South Block wrote to Beijing: “The local Chinese forces have in the last few months established several new posts and resorted to aggressive patrolling in Indian areas, which lie west of even the 1956 Chinese map claim line”. [6]

A few days earlier VK Krishna Menon had meet Chen Yi, the Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs in Geneva; the latter assured him that India and China were friends.

A Daring Mission

A few years earlier, in early 1957, the Army selected an officer to go with a patrol and physically confirm the reports that China was building a road in the Aksai Chin area; the officer was Lt Col RS Basera of 1 Kumaon Rifles. Later, in a note, Brig Jasbir Singh, the historian of the regiment wrote: “His mission was to be tough, exciting and most unique, as he had to proceed under cover to the vast plateau of Aksai Chin and confirm reports that the Chinese were constructing a motorable road from Kashgar to Lhasa.” [7]

Disguised as a yak herder, Basera was accompanied by Havildar Diwan Singh from the Corps of Engineers. They were to move with three genuine Ladakhi yak herders. During a briefing at the Headquarters in Leh, Basera was told that it was crucial to maintain utmost secrecy about the mission. The Military Intelligence (MI) instructed them not to carry any documents that could disclose their identities, no notes should be taken. They were asked to memorize the map and the route: “They had to move in the easterly direction from Leh for about 250-300 km, till they reached the expected location of the new Chinese built road, in Aksai Chin. Initially, they would pass over difficult, undulating terrain, till they crossed the Karakoram Mountain Range and Shyok River,” wrote Brig Jasbir Singh. Their mission was of national importance, said their handlers in the MI.

They finally reached the road, saw Chinese truck moving on it and reported to Delhi. But their findings, obtained with such hardship, were dismissed by the Prime Minister and Defence Minister.

Other Cases Showing China’s Recent Presence

The History of the Conflict with China, 1962 published by the Indian Ministry of Defence cited other cases: “In order to ascertain the exact alignment of the road before sending a protest to China, two reconnaissance-cum-survey parties were send out in the summer of 1958; an army party under Lt Iyengar [from the Madras Sappers] towards the north and an Indo-Tibetan Border Police party under Karam Singh, Deputy Superintendent of Police towards the southern extremity of the road.” The Official History says: “The Army party did not return because they had been arrested by the Chinese and were released two months later. From the police party, it was learnt that a part the Tibet-Sinkiang highway was definitely in Indian territory.”[8]

There is no doubt that the Indian government had information about the Chinese presence on Indian territory, as early as the mid-1950s. The greatest tragedy of the inaction then is that India is facing the consequences in Galwan or Hot Springs today.

The Story of Chhewang Rinchen, MVC

Another episode is worth recounting. A young Ladakhi, Chhewang Rinchen, who earned his first Maha Vir Chakra (MVC) in 1948 at the age of 17, is also telling about the ‘new’ Chinese presence in the Aksai Chin in the years before the 1962 conflict. In June 1960, Chhewang was transferred from 7 J&K Militia (Ladakhi) to 14 J&K Militia (Ladakhi), a newly raised battalion. On arrival at the Spituk Dak Bungalow in Leh, he was ordered to move with a company to Deskit in the Nubra Sector. He was soon given the responsibility of the construction of an airfield at Thoise; it was the first airstrip to be built in this area and the second in Ladakh, after the Leh airport built in 1948. Chhewang accomplished a feat: on September 26, 1960, the first Dakota could land on the new airfield.

Chhewann Rinchen’s biography reads: “In the beginning of 1961, 14 J&K Militia (Ladakhi) was moved to the north and its Headquarters were established at Partapur. It was feared that the Chinese who had already penetrated along the Chip-Chap river might occupy Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) before the Indians reached there.”[9] The presence of the Chinese troops in this area only dates from that time. Chhewang’s mentor was Major (later Lt Col) Randhawa, who dispatched the young Ladakhi “on recces in uncharted wilderness of the Depsang Plains and desolate heights beyond.” Incidentally, Randhawa himself was awarded an MVC for his achievements in Ladakh during the years 1960 to 1962.

Chhewang’s biography states: “In August 1961, in pursuance of the Forward Policy, Rinchen was ordered to recce the area in the extreme north and establish a post at DBO, very close to the Karakoram.” Located 16 kms south of the Karakoram Pass, DBO lies “at an altitude of approx. 5,000 metres. From Leh it is approximately 120 km on the SilkTtrade Route between Leh and Yarkand.” At that time, there were two routes from Leh to DBO; one via the Shyok river which was the winter route and the other one across the perilous Saser La (pass), the summer route; both routes converged at Murgo.

It is interesting that early June 2020, the Hindustan Times reported: “India is working on two key roads near the China border in eastern Ladakh — the site of a tense weeks-long border stand-off with its northern neighbour — to provide connectivity to an important forward area that the military calls Sub-Sector North (SSN). While the first is the strategic Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi (DS-DBO) road that provides connectivity to the country’s northern-most outpost, DBO; the second road being built from Sasoma to Saser La could eventually provide an alternative route to DBO near the Karakoram Pass. The Sasoma-Saser La road axis is south-west of DBO.”[10]

To come back to Chhewang Rinchen, he recounted that the entire area between Murgo, known as ‘Gateway to Hell’ and DBO was notorious for treacherous weather and snow blizzards. He wrote that September 3, 1961 became a memorable date in his career, while proceeding with a patrol party, along the ‘Chip Chap’ river, he noted “the hoof marks of camels and horses and, a little further, tyre marks of a three-ton vehicle. It clearly indicated the possible presence of the Chinese in that area.”

According to his biography: “Along with three jawans, Rinchen proceeded to locate the Chinese post, leaving his ponies and administrative tail behind. The party had to pass through difficult terrain, at times crawling for a few km to reach close to the Chinese water point. Beyond that point, he climbed a small plateau to have a better view of the enemy with his binoculars. Hardly 500 metres away Rinchen could see that the Chinese had established their headquarters in a double-storeyed fort, having two doors and many loopholes. About 300 Chinese were busy making bricks and loading and unloading three three-tonners.” The Chinese had just arrived in the area, one of the sites of the present clash; this was in 1961, far from the time immemorial repeatedly mentioned by the Chinese propaganda.


One can only conclude that soon after the annexation of Xinjiang, which was the turning point for the fate of the entire region, the Chinese decided to move South and annex further territory which had for centuries belonged to the Kingdom of Ladakh and therefore, to India. Beijing’s propaganda cannot bluff any informed reader.


End Notes
[1] How Stalin Elevated the Chinese Communist Party to Power in Xinjiang in 1949; see
[2] “Memorandum of Conversation between Anastas Mikoyan and Mao Zedong,” February 04, 1949, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, APRF: F. 39, Op. 1, D. 39, Ll. 54-62. Reprinted in Andrei Ledovskii, Raisa Mirovitskaia and Vladimir Miasnikov, Sovetsko-Kitaiskie Otnosheniia, Vol. 5, Book 2, 1946-February 1950 (Moscow: Pamiatniki Istoricheskoi Mysli, 2005), pp. 66-72. Translated by Sergey Radchenko.
[3] Kraus, op. cit.
[4] Kraus, op.cit.
[5] The Chinese Aggression in Maps, Publication Division, 1963; see:
[6] Notes, Memoranda and letters Exchanged and Agreements signed between The Governments of India and China; White Paper VI, (December 1961 – July 1962). See:[-0
[7] Account of Lt Col RS Basera is available in the USI Archives.
Brig Jasbir Singh, SM, 1 Kumaon Regiment, who commanded the same battalion than Lt Col SR Basera, wrote down the account of the recce.
[8] Ministry of Defence, Government of India, Official History of the 1962 India China War , Chapter 2; see:
[9] Virendra Verma, A Legend in His Own Time, Chewang Rinchen: Memoirs (Young India Publications, 1998).
[10] The Hindustan Times, India working on two roads in Ladakh amid border row; see:

Claude Arpi, a French-born author, journalist, historian, and a renowned Tibetologist, is the author of many books and papers on Tibet, China, India, and military issues for various newspapers, magazines and think tanks. He presently holds the Field Marshal KM Cariappa Chair of Excellence in USI of India and is researching on ‘India – Tibet Relations: 1947-1962’ (being published in 4 volumes, 3 already released).

Article uploaded on 23-07-2020

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation that he belongs to or of the USI of India.

By Special Arrangement with The United Service Institution of India (USI).


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *