The history of the Sino India relationships narrates a story that is quite different from the contemporary complexities between the two countries. The range of this story extends from trade to pilgrimage and education. There was the transfer of not just ‘items’, but also ‘ideologies. The daunting travel routes deterred neither the monks nor the traders and travellers from exchanging learnings and ideas. Thus, it is an inspiring story of contact and openness. The contribution of Chinese travellers like Xuan Zang and Fa Xian is well known for both the civilizations. Scholars like Bodhidharma are responsible for carrying the new religion of Buddhism from its birthplace to the neighbouring land. India’s linguistic syntax also reflect the two-way cultural give and take between the two countries. The prefix ‘cina’, meaning China, found in many of the Sanskrit and Prakrit words is one proof.
Evolution of Bilateral Relationship
China was never a territorial concern for India until 1950 when China occupied Tibet and, for the first time, the two countries actually got the common border. 1949 marked the year when China was established as a separate country. A year later, in 1950, India became the first non-communist country to start Diplomatic relation with China. Since then, the relationship has traversed through many highs and lows and is continuing to do so.
It was in 1954 June that the Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai visited India and the two countries jointly advocated the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence (Panchsheel). The bonhomie was, however, short-lived and suffered a backlash in the 1962 Indo-China Border Conflict. After a long period of antagonistic pause, the relations gradually improved and the two countries restored ambassadorial relations in 1976. Further attempts were made to normalise relationships through the exchange of visits of dignitaries like Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi (1988), President R. Venkataraman (1992) and Chinese President Jiang Zemin visited India (1996).
On the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between China and India, Indian President K R Narayanan visited China. The two sides signed The Declaration on the Principles and Comprehensive Cooperation in China-India Relations. They agreed to establish the special representatives meeting mechanism on India-China boundary question in 2003 when Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee visited China.
The last five years have seen an unexpected downturn in the relationship between the two countries in areas including trade, technology, regional diplomacy and the persistent border disputes.
1.The Worsening Border Disputes
The border between India and China is not clearly demarcated throughout and there is no mutually agreed Line of Actual Control (LAC). The LAC is the demarcation that separates Indian-controlled territory from Chinese-controlled territory. India considers the LAC to be 3,488 km long, while the Chinese consider it to be only around 2,000 km.
The three sectors of the LAC face different types and degree of disputes:
- In the Western sector, the boundary dispute is related to the Johnson Line proposed by the British in the 1860s. The demarcation put Aksai Chin in the then princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. While India recognised the Johnson Line in claiming its sovereignty over Aksai Chin, China rejects it and instead accepts McDonald Line which puts Aksai Chin under its control.
- The Middle Sector of the border lies in states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. The Dispute here is of much lesser degree. The demarcation is broadly agreed upon by both the countries and maps have been exchanged.
- In the Eastern sector, the dispute pertains to the McMahon Line in Arunachal Pradesh. The Line was decided in 1914 in a meeting of Representatives of China, India, and Tibet in Shimla. Though the Chinese representatives at the meeting initiated the agreement, they subsequently refused to accept it. The Tawang tract claimed by China was taken over by India in 1951.
The Recent Stand-Off at Galwan Valley
The fresh series of border Dispute occurred in the last eight months around the LAC in Eastern Ladakh region – Pangong Tso, Galwan Valley, Demchok and Daulat Beg Oldie areas.
Taking the situation to its extreme low, what followed was the first deadly clash in the last 45 years that had 20 Indian soldiers killed by the Chinese forces.
Military and diplomatic channels are activated to pacify the situation at the earliest. Even after many rounds of talks, the situation remains tense. Many reports suggest that both the countries have geared up the installation of strategic infrastructure at the border areas.
Factors leading to the present stand-off
- China’s policy of ‘Two steps forward and one step backward’: The lessons from the Galwan and Doklam incidents suggest the trend followed by China. The Chinese forces move forward to the Indian side, engage in the dispute that follows, and, then agrees to move back partially. The whole process ends up with Chinese authorities in possession with more land on Indian side than before. This is followed by the insistence to adhere to the ‘new status quo’ of LAC.
- Infrastructural Assertion: India has pumped up its border infrastructure development activities, more so in the last few months. The trigger point can be attributed to the Dalut Beg Oldie (DS-DBO road) in the northern tip of the western sector greatly facilitates the lateral movement of Indian forces along with the western sector, reducing travel time by 40%.
- Internal Policies: The incident is also seen as a form of Chinese reaction against the reorganisation of Jammu and Kashmir. China views this as an attempt by India to change the LAC unilaterally.
- Reactionary move in the backdrop of global backlash: India had supported a Resolution at the World Health Assembly demanding a fair probe into the origin of Coronavirus. Also, India has recently taken over as the chair of the WHO Executive Board. All these added to the Chinese aggravation.
- The wave Chinese aggressiveness: Besides the Sino-India border, the Chinese aggravation also extends to many other internal theatres:
- In order to curb the demands and protests in Hong Kong, Beijing came up with new laws that would install new and restrictive administrative structures
- Besides, China also restarted it efforts towards the reunification of Taiwan and emphasis on the One China Policy.
- China has also been engaged aggressively in the Indian Ocean Region resulting in the militarization of the region and efforts to influence the island nations where India enjoys the traditional hegemony.
- India’s steps in Indo-Pacific: India’s participation in Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), with a strong maritime component, proposals like Supply Chain Resilient initiative are seen by China as potential anti- Chinese alliance of democracies aimed at containing it and checking its maritime rise in the Indo-Pacific.
2. River Water Dispute:
Another constant source of hiccups in the bilateral relationship is the disagreements pertaining to the transboundary rivers.
- Data Sharing: Climate change has amplified the frequencies and impacts of extreme weather events like floods. The situation worsens with non-cooperation from China in sharing Brahmaputra river water data frequently with its lower riparian states.
- Construction of Dams: Jiexu, Zangmu and Jiacha are names of some of the dams that China is building in the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra which is called Tsangpo in Tibet. The lack of any formal treaty over sharing of the Brahmaputra water dilutes India’s objection to these activities.
3. Strategic Overreach
- China has been increasing investments, enhancing trade with countries in South Asia challenging India’s traditional position in the neighbourhood. In the neighbouring countries it is trying to cast its influence through a range of activities – supporting Bangladesh to build Second Nuclear power plant and the first communication satellite (Bangabandhu); donating a frigate to the Sri Lankan Navy, and giving credit to procure China-made counterinsurgency equipment among other areas, etc. There is a complex debt trap created through ‘aid diplomacy’ has made countries like the Maldives and Sri Lanka its victim. For example, China owes 70% of Maldives debt.
- Through investments (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor), and supporting Pakistan on various issues like on Kashmir in UNSC, on terrorism, on NSG etc. has emboldened Pakistan to continue its policy of asymmetric warfare against India
4. Trade Imbalance
- India has a huge trade deficit to the tune of USD 51.11 billion with China. While India lies within the top ten of China’s trading partner, China is India’s 2nd largest trading partner. This can be attributed, to a large extent, to the restrictive trade policies of China against imports from India – through both tariff and non-tariff barriers.
- The trade deficit with China also hinders India’s potential or bargaining window in international groupings like ASEAN, RCEP, etc. This was one reason why India could not fetch a negotiable deal with RCEP.
5. Digital Security
- The abrupt increase in Chinese investment in the Knowledge economy of India, that mostly involves the tech-start-ups, has also raised the concerns related to privacy and data issues. Chinese company Huwaei has been boycotted by many countries including USA citing privacy issues. India still lacks any strong framework that can address such security issues.
- Responding to these concerns, the government has banned more than 100 Chinese apps from operating in India including popular apps like Tiktok, PUBG etc. This would definitely amount to a huge loss for the Chinese companies given that India has approximately 574 million Internet users.
- The government introduced changes in FDI rules which mandate “prior approval” from the Centre for foreign investments from countries “that share border with India”. The move came as a reaction against the Chinese takeover of investment firms that are struggling in the present economic slowdown.
The Border Peace and Tranquillity Agreement was signed in 1993 under which both the countries agreed to “strictly respect and observe the LAC between the two sides”. The ‘LAC’ here referred to the one that was agreed upon at that time, rendering irrelevant the line of actual control in 1959 or 1962.
It also contains the provision for the two parties to jointly check and determine the segments of LAC whenever needed. Another Agreement in 1996 provided for the Confident Building Measures.
Even though the conflict has waned to some degree as compared to the peak reached a few months ago, the overall bilateral relationship is the equivalent of ‘antagonistic cooperation’. It can only be said that the crisis has transformed into a long term challenge.
The undeniable fact, that India has China are neighbours, make them intrinsically dependent both economically and ecologically. At the same time, they are the giant Asian competitors in the political and security theatres particularly in the subcontinent and the Indian Ocean region (IOR). Thus, India needs to draw multiple lines in deciding the appropriate mix of formal and informal negotiations, defensive and offensive strategy; track one and track two diplomacies; and degree of engagements with non-regional powers like the USA, European Union. Another significant prerequisite is to reach a mutually agreed interpretation of the Line of Actual Control. In matters of territorial integrity, India needs to adopt a stern and non-negotiatory approach. Diplomatic acumen should be shown by India in building ‘indirect pressure’ through international organisations like the United Nations, ASEAN, Shanghai Cooperation Organisation; and also through friendly countries like Russia and Iran who also share good relation with China.
Both India and China should accept the other’s rise as inevitable and learn to live with it, accommodating each other. And India must try to put in place the means to make that the reasonable choice for China.
[This blog is written by Dipak Abhishek. Dipak is part of the content development team at Career Launcher IAS].