If China remains insensitive towards India’s sensitivities, India may not care too much for China’s sensitivities in Tibet, Taiwan, Xinjiang.
The death of Indian soldiers in Galwan, the first after 1962, has dealt a heavy blow to the confidence building measures (CBMs) India and China signed between 1988 and 2013, as well as the “Wuhan Spirit” and “Chennai Connect” that talks about the “consensus” between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping that both sides “will not allow their differences to turn into disputes”. China, rather, has thrown down the gauntlet to India saying that all the disputed territory between India and China belongs to it, and that it will continue to change the status quo and pass it as fait accompli to India with brute force. This is the maximalist position of China. Let’s examine how China reached thus far.
In fact, this is the shadow of our own maximalist position on the border in the 1950s that we absolutely mismanaged, demonstrating strategic myopia in settling the border. India could have settled the border including the Kashmir issue in 1954 when India accepted Tibet as a part of China and signed the “Agreement Between the Republic of India and the People’s Republic of China on Trade and Intercourse Between Tibet Region of China and India”. India could have opened up the border issue and settled it on quid pro quo basis. But rather than demonstrating strategic vision, Jawaharlal Nehru and his advisors harped about the Panchsheel as “little short than a no war pact” that will “ensure peace to a very large extent in a certain area of Asia”. All these lofty ideals and rhetoric were belied by the PLA incursions in Bara Hoti soon after signing the agreement.
India could have settled it in 1960 when Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai visited India in the backdrop of the Tibetan rebellion and the subsequent flight of the Dalai Lama to India, and the bloody incidents at Kongka La in the Western Sector and Longju in the Eastern Sector. The summit between Nehru and Zhou was inconclusive, as India’s maximalist position failed to read Zhou’s message that the “settlement of the boundary question between the two countries should take into account the national feelings of the two peoples toward the Himalayas and the Karakoram Mountains”, subtly reflecting his earlier statement that “an overall settlement of the boundary question should be sought by both sides, taking into account the historical background and existing actualities”. To be fair, Nehru’s “tough posture” was a reflection of the negative role played by the cacophonous press and opposition, which pronounced Zhou as a “murderer” and that if at all Nehru wished to talk to Zhou “China must accept two prerequisites set by New Delhi, i.e. accept McMahon Line and evacuate the Aksai Chin”.
There was an opening in 1979 as well when Deng Xiaoping in his meeting with the then Foreign Minister of India, A.B. Vajpayee proposed the idea of a “package deal” for the resolution of the Sino-Indian boundary issue. Vajpayee’s reply was that “this was an old Chinese proposal and that a beginning could be made by trying to tackle those areas where there was less dispute” assert former Ambassadors Ranganathan and Khanna in their book published in 2000. Henceforth, it was because of this “sectoral” approach that China now asked for more concessions in the Eastern Sector if India wanted China to cede more territories in the Western Sector. The 2003 Special Representative (SR) Mechanism, according to China’s SR, Dai Bingguo, who negotiated the border issue with four Indian SRs between 2003 and 2013, points to another opportunity lost to resolve the border issue in his memoir, Strategic Dialogue: Reminiscences of Dai Bingguo.
However, I believe it wasn’t really an opportunity, for India had conveyed to China that through this mechanism we would explore the guiding principles for resolving the issue, it would not involve specific negotiations for border demarcation and work on the maps. It is indeed intriguing as to why exchange of maps was omitted since it was already there in the Article X of the 1996 CBM. Nevertheless, the SR mechanism did result in the 2005 protocol on the Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question. However, Article VII that envisages “in reaching a boundary settlement, the two sides shall safeguard due interests of their settled populations in the border areas” has been abandoned by the Chinese as it essentially jeopardizes the principle of give and take according to them.
It could be discerned that China, over the years, after carrying out extensive modernization of the PLA and beefing up its border infrastructure in Tibet and Xinjiang along the LCA, has adopted a maximalist position blended with sectoral approach in the form of “early harvest” proposals. China’s approach is to take advantage of the undefined Line of Actual Control (LAC) on the ground, occupy it, militarize it, change the status quo and pass it as a fait accompli relying on brute force as it has done in the South China Sea. Any student of history and border studies will know about various differing claim lines of China in the Western Sector, and how these have been shifted westward over the period of time, owing to the undefined nature of the border as well as the LAC. This is also owing to this reason that China will not be interested in resolving the border and also the identification of the LAC. Moreover, seeing the changing nature of the conflict restricted by the CBMs not to open fire, China for long has embedded “gedou” (gladiator) contingents armed with “langyabang” (wolf teeth iron maces) along the LAC.
In the face of these ground realities, what could be India’s options? Take stock of India’s China policy in tandem with opposition parties, experts hailing from military, diplomacy, economy, technology, sinology etc. fields and draw a long-term, sustainable strategy to deal with China. Draw a blueprint for closing the differential gaps with China in various fields, which will require building huge capacities across the spectrum. India will be forced to take sides between “Washington Consensus” and “Beijing Consensus”, which is nothing but a choice between liberal and authoritarian models of growth. India obviously will tilt towards Washington irrespective of Chinese scholars warning India to maintain a distance from the US. If China’s behaviour on the ground smells of coercion and brutality, there perhaps won’t be buyers of the “China Dream” and “community of shared future” etc., jargons in the world. India will forge closer defence and economic ties with the US and its allies as envisaged in the relevant agreements.
If China remains insensitive towards India’s sensitivities, India may not care too much for China’s sensitivities in places such as Tibet, Taiwan, Xinjiang, etc. Conversely, India must be watchful of China’s flaring up insurgencies in India as it did post 1962. Economically, the relationship is bound to take the brunt, but it may augur well for India for the revival and revitalization of its own industrial supply chains. Nevertheless, here again, India should identify sectors where investment could be attracted and utilized for enhancing its capacities, but the question remains whether it is plausible if relations spiral downward. At a tactical level, if the LAC does not exist for China, it will not exist for India as well. Implying that henceforth, both countries are likely to occupy vantage points and challenge the other side and turn the border hot through their existing “fistfights”, limited conflict or even a full-blown war along all the sectors. If the pattern of China’s posturing along the LAC since 2013 is analyzed, it becomes clear where both are heading towards. Additionally, the ramping up of the border infrastructure would also demand that our troops are fully informatised, equipped, and having access to quick logistical support, which certainly is not reflected on the ground in Galwan. Finally, if diplomacy prevails and both settle for an East-West swap, it would be the best option, as finding a solution based on history, customs, maps, military, CBMs, and LCA as a border has proven futile.
B.R. Deepak is Professor of China Studies at the Centre of Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.